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Monarchies may fall and empires fall apart, but for now, epic family dynasties still rule with a vengeance on the screen. If you are impatient with what House Roy expects in “Succession”, you can bridge yourself in the meantime with “Dune” with its futuristic encounter between the spice barons of the House of Atreides and the House of Harkonnen. Or maybe warm up with the fiery anti-royalist screed from “Spencer,” who pursues Princess Diana’s desperate escape from the Windsor House. And now comes House of Gucci, Ridley Scott’s clever and captivating film about an Italian luxury brand and a family brought to their knees by greed, deceit and vicious power struggles, as well as a notorious black widow played by a coldly electrifying Lady Gaga .
We get a taste of that bitter ending at the beginning. The film opens on March 27, 1995, just minutes before Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), the former head of the fashion house, is shot dead in Milan by an assassin hired by his vengeful ex-wife Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). Scott cuts off before the killing takes place in a way that can’t help but repeat the violent prologue to “The Last Duel,” his latest film about the hardships of a 14th century French woman. Here, hundreds of years later, is another moment of calm before the storm, and also another story of a woman trapped in a presumptuous masculine world of power and intrigue.
One key difference is that while the heroine of “The Last Duel” is being sold into a bad marriage, Patrizia is willing to do it herself. She’s at a party in Milan in 1970 and exudes Elizabeth Taylor vibes in a dazzling red dress when she first meets shy, bespectacled Maurizio, who is so awkward – but so charming – that it takes her a moment to admit realize that he is the heir to the famous Gucci fashion house. A reluctant heir, admittedly, who wants to become a lawyer, shows little interest in the family business and is completely naive as to why Patrizia might target him. They’re getting married soon, and defying Maurizio’s father, Rodolfo Gucci (a sleek, sophisticated Jeremy Irons), who glances at his future daughter-in-law and guesses what she’s up to.
It’s hard to see someone like that could not guess, since Patrizia’s dark, glittering eyes that stop shortly before burning holes in the canvas, so nakedly conveying every wish to her. As in her previous unfortunate Cinderella story, “A Star Is Born,” Lady Gaga temporarily wears a working-class shell and plays down her natural attraction in order to maximize it. Patrizia soon shows herself for what she is: an avatar of ambition and, like Gaga herself, a fashion designer, born for the silver sequin evening dresses and furry après-ski ensembles that costume designer Janty Yates created for her. Above all, Patrizia is a woman with insatiable hunger: she practically devours Maurizio in one molto vigoroso Sex scene, and she looks ahead to the day when his millions – and his mighty place in the competitive Gucci family hierarchy – will also be hers.
The family ties are initially expanded by Rodolfo’s brother and business partner Aldo Gucci (a boisterous, loving Al Pacino), who welcomes his new niece with open arms. He is the entrepreneurial genius of the company that carried on his father Guccio’s mission to transform a Florentine family business into a global brand. Maurizio and Patrizia are soon moving to New York (and have a young daughter, Alessandra) to work in Gucci’s Manhattan stores. And soon Rodolfo is dead, leaves Maurizio his half of the company (colloquial) and sets off a furious round of power games. There are stormy confrontations and hostile takeovers, fake signatures and jail sentences, grim financial reviews and strange psychological readings (the last of Patrizia’s girlfriend and future accomplice Pina Auriemma, played by a very playful Salma Hayek).
Patrizia takes great pride in the business – she’s angry with the cheap Gucci imitation market – and, like a chain-smoking, mud-bathing Lady Macbeth, spurs her husband on to become increasingly ruthless towards his own family. One of her easier tracks is Aldo’s black sheep son Paolo, who considers himself a great designer, but whose incompetence and vulgarity seem to seep from his pores like sweat. He’s played by Jared Leto, unrecognizable under a bald head and prosthetic cheeks, in the kind of glaringly extreme transformation that has become this actor’s smacking MO. It’s an attention grabbing stunt; it also works like a gangbuster, especially because Leto’s performance – hilarious, personable, full of tragicomic pathos – is precisely tailored to the requirements of a film that often indulges in its own classy, padded vulgarity.
I usually mean that as praise; It’s also a sure sign that Scott and his staff – including screenwriters Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna, who are here adapting Sara Gay Forden’s 2000 book – have fully understood their subject matter. The boundary between art and trash is always permeable, both in the high-end sector and in the cinema. And no different than some of the totems of luxury exhibited here, “House of Gucci” is a calculated, strictly controlled mixture of the stylish and the sticky. It’s also remarkably adept at the inherent kinship between fashion and cinema, which Rodolfo himself acknowledges when he recalls his own previous career as a film actor, as well as the iconic flower scarf he commissioned for Grace Kelly.
A company that since Ingrid Bergman in Roberto Rossellini’s “Journey to Italy” clutched a Gucci bag with a bamboo handle, has long relied on Hollywood’s glamor icons to sell its expensive goods. And so there is something pertinent, even respectful, to the sheer number of movie stars commissioned here. They disregard subtlety with wild gestures and exaggerated Italian accents, may flirt with clichés and sometimes fall headlong to the wind, but they do so with a verve and devotion that disarms the judgment and the denial for the greater part of 2½ hours Disbelief undoes.
Was any of these characters really that terrifying or that addicting? Did any of this actually happen? Possibly. More or less. Of course not. As in any smooth bio-fiction, characters were cut out, timelines falsified, perspectives distorted. And yet, even amid the inevitable oversimplifications and exaggerations, with some kind of relentlessly grim logic it all fits together into an extended cautionary tale about how family and business should not mix. This lesson is accelerated by various misfits and opportunists, including the formidable Gucci attorney Domenico De Sole (a Jack Huston with a gruesome poker face), idiosyncratic Texan designer Tom Ford (Reeve Carney), and private equity firm Investcorp, all of them Part of the process will be to separate the family from the company of the same name.
House of Gucci will certainly do its part to spruce up the brand, even if it happily launches two decades of dirty (but still absolutely fabulous) laundry. But Scott, now 83 and an increasingly clear, sober observer of how power and industry operate behind closed doors, makes no effort to fetishize inventory. He and his cameraman Dariusz Wolski photograph the executive suites and luxury residences of the Gucci family in muted shades of gray and give the shadowy interiors and the actors’ faces an often funeral touch. And they’re just as intoxicated by the sight of double-G belts and horsebit loafers as they are by the cocaine barrels rolling through “The Counselor,” Scott’s brilliant 2013 thriller about the catastrophic break-in of a lawyer in the Mexican drug trade.
While it also focuses on an outsider who makes the mistake of fooling himself into an insider, House of Gucci doesn’t have the ardent nihilism of the earlier film. It’s a fashion show, figuratively and often literally, and its cutthroat dynamics are loosened up by heavy lumps of foam. If anything, his utter fascination with his characters, his refusal to judge even the most unredeemable of them, suggests his most significant and obvious cinematic influence, “The Godfather”. There’s Leto’s badass channeling from Fredo Corleone; There’s also Pacino and, equally importantly, Drivers eerie channeling of Pacino in the film’s most subtle performance. You may think of Michael Corleone how Maurizio transforms himself from a principled Gucci agnostic into the wealth-wasting head of the entire empire, and his star goes up as his marriage goes spectacularly south.
But that’s where the comparisons more or less end. For one thing, there is no “Godfather” equivalent of Patrizia Reggiani and no one in “House of Gucci” who can ultimately cope with the force of nature Lady Gaga. In a movie that delights in its own forgery charms, she’s very real.
“House of Gucci”
Rated: R, for language, some sexual content, and brief nudity and violence
Running time: 2 hours, 38 minutes
To play: The general version starts on November 24th