High fashion is perplexing to the uninitiated, if not outright ridiculous. The clothing is exorbitantly priced and impractically outlandish, and the popular explanations for these peculiarities—that it is all of the best quality and the best looking—seem only so warranted and intuitively discredited by seasonal leaps from one fad to another. But in the face of such perplexity Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci, which critics have thus far maligned on the very grounds that make it effective, yields clarifying and tragic insights.
Largely, the film is based on the true story of the decline of the Gucci family and the resurrection of the Gucci brand, beginning with the romance of the well-heeled Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and high-heeled Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). On penalty of estrangement from the former’s father, Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), the couple marry, and thereafter grow close to the groom’s uncle, Aldo (Al Pacino), and cousin, Paolo (Jared Leto). But the birth of a daughter precipitates a reconciliation with Rodolfo, who—on cue—dies, leaving, albeit contestably, Maurizio his shares in Gucci. Then, in remarkably short order, Patrizia helps him seize corporate control by successively throwing Aldo and Paolo under the bus.
But as Maurizio’s power increases and he comes to identify more fully with the Gucci family and brand, he falls aways from Patrizia, divorcing her in favor of the sort of woman whom his father would have approved. So, aided by a television psychic (Salma Hayek), Patrizia arranges for Maurizio’s assassination. But before the deed is done, the latter is booted from the company as young American designer Tom Ford (Reeve Carney) swoops in to the delight of Gucci’s new owners, making the brand marketable again.
Almost unanimously, reviewers in the wake of the film’s release pilloried the cast’s high-flown and jarringly incongruous performances. One review in the New Yorker reads, “There are times when ‘House of Gucci’ becomes a kind of actors’ contest, with the stars lining up to salt the ham”; another in the New York Times, “If Irons were any chillier, he would crystallize. If Pacino ran any hotter, he’d burst into flame”; in the Atlantic, “Leto acts like he just walked off the top of a pizza box.” Perhaps a particularly exasperated review at RogerEbert.com sums up such judgements best: “If only the cast could decide what kind of a movie they were all in.”
But this sort of appraisal of the actors’ performances overlooks their relationship to the dramatic substance of the film, which quite definitely is a conflict of high-flown and jarringly incongruous personalities vying to remake Gucci in their own image. That is, Rodolfo would have it be the epitome of taste, Aldo a wearable token of a rich tradition, Paolo the uniform of youth, Patrizia a superlative status symbol, and Maurizio something as elusive and tragic as his own self.
It is no coincidence that high fashion as we know it—a matter of spectacle epitomized in the runway show—emerged contemporaneously with the modernist turn in art; a designer’s line is a sort of public aesthetic expression, albeit a mercurial one, of how a man or woman ought to be in which people can partake insofar as they are willing to pay for the privilege.
In a scene where Paolo shows Rodolfo sketches for a prospective line dominated by flouncy silhouettes and organic browns and pastels, and the latter proceeds to scorn him as a mediocrity, correctively offering him a scarf of his own design with rich colors set off in an elegant pattern that the former then urinates on—the conflict is plainly not a mere disagreement over technical choices or commercial viability. Rather, it is a matter of what Gucci ought to be. Pointedly, in a later scene, Maurizio tells Vogue’s Anna Wintour that people walking into Gucci stores “will find a new world, a new vision,” quite unlike what they would at a prototypical Ralph Lauren or Versace store, which he respectively likens to a “movie set” and “rock concert.”
But as the film progresses, Scott depicts how all the high-flown personalities of the Gucci family—possible embodiments of the brand—come up short, both in in managerial terms (variously, they fumble inheritance laws, tax laws, and corporate expense accounts) and personally. For instance, Rodolfo’s unsparing tastefulness induces his estrangement from his son and daughter-in-law, and Paolo’s verve for youthfulness in the face of his increasing corpulence, baldness, and greying ultimately swells into a buffoonish self-denial that hinders his maturation, leaving him too childishly naïve to anticipate Patrizia’s machinations.
In a particularly trenchant scene, the status conscious Patrizia quarrels with Aldo over knockoff products, appealing to his purported traditionalism with reference to remarks he had made regarding generationally tended Gucci cattle and storied ancestors (all of which Maurizio up to that point had regularly cast aspersions on). She asks, “What about quality, your sacred calves?” And after much equivocating he replies, “Gucci is what I say it is”—in one fell swoop nullifying his vision of the brand and pretensions, as well as her unquestioned notion of Gucci’s exalted status and by extension her status as part of the Gucci family.
To that end, it is neither surprising that Scott introduces the character of Ford concurrently with the sealing of Maurizio’s fate, nor that Carney’s performance of him is the least high-flown of the film’s fashionable personalities. Insofar as Scott conveys his characters’ humanity via pitiable histrionics, Ford is the least humane of the bunch and aptly the line he debuts prior to Maurizio’s ousting (to an extent foreshadowed by the wardrobe of Patrizia’s romantic rival) is monochromatic, sleek, sexual, yet wholly unerotic. But Scott does not dwell long on Ford before the film ends—likely because he is well-known in his own right, both as a designer and fellow filmmaker.
From his time at Gucci up to the present, Ford’s reputation has been built on a peculiarly self-conscious understanding of modern man in all the dubious splendor of his economic health and spiritual rootlessness. Pointedly, when he began designing, some of his most eminent predecessors—despite the commercial success of his work—found him somewhat bewildering, if not lamentable. In 1999 when Gucci acquired the House of Yves Saint Laurent and Ford became its creative director, Saint Laurent himself said of Ford’s work for the brand, “The poor man does what he can.”
But Ford no longer trades on the outmoded repute of his predecessors. He is now what he is—and unapologetically so. Since 2005, he has designed under his own eponymous label, describing his ideal customer as “international, cultured, well-traveled, and possessing disposable income.” In 2015, responding to allegations that he objectified women in his ad campaigns, he said in his defense that he is an “equal opportunity objectifier” and “just as happy to objectify men.” And in his 2016 film Nocturnal Animals, a one-scene character evocative of Ford refers at a beau monde dinner party to our modern high culture as “junk,” but proceeds anyway to good-naturedly advise the film’s protagonist, “Enjoy the absurdity of our world. It’s a lot less painful—believe me—than the real world.”
Put simply, Ford’s triumph both in life and explicitly in House of Gucci is not a mere feat of managerial competence. Under his stewardship, Gucci prevailed against its competitors because it produced lines—visions of man—suited precisely to the sort of man then beginning to prevail in the world.
This sort of story, a historical drama about a new man whose very character is adapted to the demands of contemporary commerce is not unprecedented in Scott’s oeuvre. For instance, his 2017 film All the Money in the World depicts the infamous refusals of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty to cooperate with his grandson’s kidnappers, at one point offering them only the maximum amount that could be deducted from his taxes. But House of Gucci is more poignant: It depicts this new man’s predecessors—eccentric high-flown jarringly incongruous personalities whose faults were coincident with their humanity—as definitively not up to the challenge of modernity. To wit, it is a story about the failure of man and the birth of homo economicus in the flesh—and its salience is altogether evident in Ford’s own response to the film: “Was it a farce or a gripping tale of greed? I often laughed out loud, but was I supposed to?”
Michael Shindler is a writer living in Washington, D.C. His work has been published in outlets including Church Life, American Spectator, University Bookman, New English Review, and National Review Online. Follow him: @MichaelShindler.