Scott: House of Gucci (2021)
Astonishingly, House of Gucci was Ridley Scott’s second film in 2021, the second full year of the pandemic. Scott is now 84, which makes the fact of the film even more remarkable – so much so that it seems to have overshadowed what an extraordinary statement this is on its own terms. For House of Gucci is Scott’s elegy for cinema, or at least for cinema as it existed over the span of his enormous career, wrapped up in so many layers of nostalgia, love and camp attachment that it’s hard to gauge its full complexity until the final scenes play out. On the surface, it’s the story of the Gucci empire – specifically the relationship between Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), his father Rodolfo Gucci (Jeremy Irons), his uncle Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino), his cousin Paolo Gucci (Jared Leto) and his wife Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), who prompted him to embark on a Gucci revolution from within, but ended up having him murdered in 1996.
Without detracting from the intrinsic power of this story, Scott uses it as the springboard for a broader rumination on the way that cinematic attachment has changed over the course of this multi-generational sweep. Right from the beginning, it’s clear that he’s channelling the chic luxury of a certain kind of Euro art cinema that was in vogue when he was preparing his first films in the late 1970s, for House of Gucci exudes an Italian stylishness that emerged somewhere between late neorealism and the New Wave proper, alternating between gritty realism and lavish displays of luxury. Alternatively, you could say he draws on those neorealist textures that persisted deep into the New Wave, and were indeed necessary for its visions of decadent abandon to ramify by comparison. We first meet Gaga’s Patrizia at this nexus of styles – parading for a Fellini-esque crowd of lustful admirers, but against a bland carpark, highway overpass and industrial landscape that is decidedly more neorealist in tone and spirit.
This Euro art cinema excelled in classy trash, or trashy class, like Gucci itself, and House of Gucci strikes just the right balance between class and trash. In part, that’s because the two younger leads here, Gaga and Driver, are ugly-beautiful, stunning from some angles but almost grotesque from others. Scott draws both aspects of their physical appearance into dramatic relief, sometimes shooting them almost as if they are Gucci models themselves, and at other times pointedly contrasting them to the models who actually sell Gucci products. That same taste for attractive grotesquerie extends to Irons and Pacino, who are consistently clad in luxurious outfits, but seem to have prosthetically enhanced wrinkles and skin blemishes on their faces. However, the ugly-beautiful nexus is most acute for Leto, who is so heavily made up that only his blue eyes, his most beautiful feature, give any hint that it is him.
Despite these broad similarities in ugly-beautiful appearance, however, the film also hinges on two very different generations of actor. On the one hand, we have Irons and Pacino, whose Italian accents give them license to be hammy, permission to take an unbridled pleasure in delivery. In an older kind of cinema, more tethered to the command of the big screen, this might not have seemed quite so ridiculous, so there’s an element of anachronism to the utter relish with which these two veterans sink into their roles. Pacino, in particular, has done Italian-American shtick in so many different ways that it’s quite uncanny to see him do pure Italian shtick, especially since his most prominent Italian scenes, in The Godfather trilogy, are so inimical to the tasteless jouissance on display here. He’s an object lesson in baroque scene-chewing, especially since Scott does everything to further texture his delivery – most memorably when he inexplicably has a critical phone conversation in the midst of a vigorous back massage that forces him to cough, splutter and repeat virtually everything that he says.
By contrast, Gaga and Driver exude a much more muted cinematic presence. Since no Gaga film role could ever rival her music videos or public persona, she’s opted for more basic roles, as if to turn normcore into another extravagant part of her repertoire. A Star is Born allegorised that process, presenting her as an avant-garde queer icon who gradually normalised into an acoustic singer-songwriter, not unlike the trajectory from The Fame Monster to Joanne. She continues that trend here, but to even better effect, since it throws the camp world around her into greater relief, which seems even more exotic because Gaga doesn’t quite fit into it. For all that the trailers paint her as the camp epicentre of the film, she’s more like the still point, even the blank point, round which the camp apparatus revolves.
Between Pacino and Irons on the one hand, and Gaga and Driver on the other, Scott uses House of Gucci to evoke the decline of a certain kind of grand cinematic presence, ambition and storytelling. In particular, he seems to be contemplating the fate of great dynastic narratives in the wake of longform television, especially the gangster films of the 70s-90s, and GoodFellas above all. In fact, House of Gucci perhaps makes most sense as Scott’s answer to GoodFellas. Both films deal with an outsider rising through the ranks of a Italian-American dynasty (Henry Hill starts off driving cars, Patrizia works for her father’s transportation company) and both films move inexorably towards the early 90s as the moment at which this dynastic impulse imploded. Like GoodFellas, House of Gucci also plays as a sustained montage sequence, as fresh scenes and shifts in location are ushered in by propulsive dance tracks that evolve to match the time period. At heart, both texts are boom-and-bust narratives, except with Scott’s film there’s a more acute sense that the bubble of Hollywood cinema has burst.
That Hollywood bubble corresponds to the main economic arc of the film, which traces Gucci from a family owned company, through the expulsion and destruction of its most powerful members, to its first emergence as a publicly traded company in 1995. By that stage, it had transformed from a legacy brand to a cutting-edge brand, and not a single Gucci family member was left on its board. Scott presents this as a cinematic decline, a movement away from Gucci patriarch Rodolfo’s heritage. When Maurizo wants to bring Patrizia into the family fold, Rodolfo tells him that she’s too middle-class, but frames it in cinematic terms, insisting that she can’t possibly live up to his mother’s status as a movie star, or his own status as a minor movie star. Similarly, when Maurizio seeks out Rodolfo to announce the marriage, he finds him surrounding by strips of celluloid, watching old footage of his mother’s heyday, which corresponds to precisely the period between neorealism and New Wave Scott elegises.
The very act of marrying Patrizia is thus a kind of cinematic betrayal, and it’s only enhanced by her determination to change the Gucci brand from within, both by discarding legacy material and embracing non-legacy material. In the process, she effectively disposes of the three main contenders for the Gucci dynasty. By marring Maurizio, she sends Rodolfo into a sharp decline from which he never recovers. Then she courts Aldo, Maurizo’s uncle, only to convince Maurizo to cut him loose. Finally, she courts Paolo, Maurizio’s cousin, but leaves him utterly penniless by the end. These acts sever Gucci from its cinematic heritage, culminating with Patrizia’s ultimate act of betrayal – convincing the Metropolitan Museum of Art to return a one-off Gucci shoe, made specifically for Clark Gable, to leverage a deal with new investors.
This subsumption of cinematic idiosyncrasy back into bland market forces is the last piece of the puzzle in the Gucci devolution – the moment at which a family of cinematic icons gives way to a publicly traded company. As the film frames it, Maurizo is almost fortunate to be assassinated by Patrizia, since that’s a considerably less traumatic fate than seeing himself severed from his own name, and his family’s larger-than-life presence, when the company finally goes public. His investors inform him of this possibility just before he’s killed, and the two fates are basically the same fate here, as Maurizio goes the way of his father, uncle and cousin, and the company becomes just another brand. This is not dissimilar to the cascades of betrayal that drive GoodFellas, but the reaction in Scott’s film is grief rather than rage, mourning rather than revenge. All Aldo can do, upon learning he’s being shut out of the company, is to choke back his tears, in one of the most affecting moments of Pacino’s career.
That sense of impotence, so visceral in this scene with Aldo, percolates throughout the film, eventually offsetting the manic montage sequences, which don’t persist right to the end here, as they do with GoodFellas, but eventually bleed out into a more sombient tone. In the process, their momentum is absorbed by the stock market that absorbs the Gucci brand, as the aesthetic achievements of the empire finally become so many economic imperatives. Of course, the irony of the whole story is that Gucci only entered its renaissance, and its second wave of fashion relevance, once the company was publicly listed, and all the family members had been expelled. But Scott is not so interested in this sequel, since House of Gucci is an elegy above all else – resilient, campy, self-aware and even self-deprecating at times, but in a way that prevents its mournfulness feeling maudlin, rendering its grief hard-earned.
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