I try not to place too many of my eggs in the "heroes" basket and, aside from Stephen Fry, I am hard pressed to think of many living people who would qualify for that distinction in my own mind. However, I do have a great deal of people of interest in my life and, as people who know me well know well, Karl Lagerfeld is one of those people. For those of you who don't know, Mr. Lagerfeld is the Creative Director of Chanel, Fendi, and his own lines. He is also an extraordinarily accomplished photographer. He is a highly intelligent man, a bit of a Classicist himself with a fluency in Greek and Latin (and German and French and English and Italian.) He has one of the famous and coveted personal libraries in the world.
One thing I do not wish to do here is to pass judgment on Mr. Lagerfeld's life based on a 90 minute movie nor, more to the point, on my emotional reactions to that 90 minute movie. I felt a magnificent loneliness in the film, and I felt as if it were by the design of the documentary filmmaker. It seemed to me that the interview segments interspersed with the action of the film were full of questions that attempted to lead Lagerfeld to comment on his loneliness. There were questions about his mother, his love life, his intense work ethic, the frivolity of the world in which he works, the distance of friends, his ability to break long-term ties, all of which Lagerfeld explains away as to why he is not lonely. However, the evidence seems to mount to us, the viewers, as the many variations on the question are asked.
Along with that, the footage that was chosen from a long period of following the man often seems to back up that thesis. In one scene Lagerfeld is shown affectionately patting a colleague's hand. The lady comments on how it hurts when he does that because of all of the rings he wears. In another scene Lagerfeld sits in a villa courtyard surrounded by bags of books that he has purchased on a trip. In the background there are people milling about. Lagerfeld, one of the most iconic figures on the planet, is framed in such a way so as to amplify that he is sitting alone with his bags of stuff. On the streets he is stopped on a walk every few steps by someone wanting to have their photograph taken with him. He graciously obliges and, after the photos, the people walk away looking at the picture on their cameras. Getting a collection together, he is filmed walking up the famous Chanel mirrored staircase alone, stepping on sketches to do so.
At the end of the film, I found I felt like I knew less about Karl Lagerfeld than when I started. I caught myself wondering what Christmas is like for Mr. Lagerfeld or what it's like when Mr. Lagerfeld has a head cold. But there is also an appropriate armor to the whole experience. I am not to know those things, nor should I really. I almost felt as if the point of the movie was to show me that I should enjoy the work of the artists I enjoy and leave off trying to know anything about people I will never get to know. I think there is a good lesson there. We know next to nothing about Shakespeare's life, yet his work is universal and we can all still enjoy it 500 years later. Why shouldn't that be true for contemporaries as well? Why should we always be so concerned over who made a thing?
Lagerfeld seems to have sort of an Epicurean Stoicism of a practical philosophy, with a dash of Existentialism. He is not a man of faith, nor a man to whom faith seems to hold any attraction. He speaks of his mother's constant frivolity along with Germanic arms' length, and I certainly saw the apple on the ground right next to that tree. His is a life of constant work and he has built an empire in which he is able to 1) create the art that he wants to create, 2) surround himself with the beauty he wants to surround himself with, and 3) allow himself as much time alone as he wants. He is constantly moving forward, chasing the dragon as it were, never looking back. There's almost a bit of the heavenly in that sort of forgetting, the sort of thing, I know from experience, I was looking for, and to some extent finding, in alcoholism. That sounds way more condemning than I mean it to sound. What I mean to say is that I feel like I totally understand the impulse to constantly look forward and forget what lays behind. Of course, his version is a lot more healthy as it is an active version: a constantly mutating vision. But I was rattled by how much I understood this part of it viscerally.
All of which I find compelling, and all of which mirrors some of my own more earthly desires. I think if I were not a man of faith, Mr. Lagerfeld's view would be about as good as it gets. Still, after the movie, Laurie was, I think, even more disturbed than I was by it. In talking with her about it, I mentioned that there is a figure in Christian theology who is known to have Beauty removed from Love. Again, I do not wish to pass any sort of judgment here. Aside from the trappings of the persona, I don't feel there's anything particularly Mephistophelean about Mr. Lagerfeld, at least no more so than any other figure in the fashion industry. He is, after all, just another human trying to live his life. I sincerely hope that he is very happy as he has brought a lot of beauty into this world. I admire his work tremendously. However, I find myself a little unnerved by what this suggests to me about beauty in and of itself. I am inclined toward the pat little axiom of Keats about how Truth is beauty and beauty truth. I am inclined, like Wilde, to advocate a sort of inherent goodness in beauty, a reflection of the divine delight in the aesthetically pleasing. But after watching this film, it makes me question a bit about what is a "good life." I think the answer is more of a question of balance. Even in the Platonic understanding, beauty is not one of the cardinal virtues. I do think that there is a goodness to beauty, however I feel that it is entirely limited to beauty. We foolish creatures always want to extend that value to other aspects, but it just is not so. Take it from a homely man.
Mr. Lagerfeld, especially in response to the sections regarding his mother, eschews analysis. In that sense we are almost the polar opposite. I believe in a life well examined. I am a passionate enthusiast of Freud and Jung. I also know that we all are beings created through a mixture of circumstance and will. We show what we choose to show and are fully capable of hiding what we choose to hide. It doesn't make things disappear to hide them. He says near the end of the film "I don't want to have reality in anyone's life because I don't want it in mine." I understand this completely and there is a level in which I can almost covet that kind of thinking. Reality is unspeakably awful, but I can't be a ghost. It's not enough for me.