For all its flaws, Ridley Scott’s based-on-true-events drama about the fabulously wealthy Italian fashion family is a fascinating watch.
There’s a word that exists in the Italian language that doesn’t quite have a counterpart in any other language: sprezzatura. What it essentially boils down to is the art of looking like you don’t care – a style of perfectly-studied imperfection. This idea goes back at least to the Renaissance, a time when the Gucci family earned its reputation as skilled saddlemakers to the rich and aristocratic. Or at least that’s how Aldo Gucci, the powerful and powerfully at-ease paterfamilias played by Al Pacino, relates the family history in Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci. It is against this backdrop – of wealth, power, history, and above all, style – that Scott and screenwriters Roberto Bentivegna and Becky Johnston weave their story, an uneven yet compelling story about the only person who became a Gucci through their own making rather than by an accident of birth, and yet was forever an outsider.
Patrizia Reggiani (played by Lady Gaga) is a young woman living in Milan in the ‘70s. She runs into charming but awkward law student Maurizio (Adam Driver) at a party, and then learns he’s the heir to one of the world’s largest fashion fortunes. Maurizio is the Michael Corleone of the Gucci family, assuring Patrizia that all those things his family would be interested in, in fashion and wealth, are just his family’s concerns and not his. This chance encounter (held at a disco costume ball) puts both of them on a path that takes them through betrayal and disgrace and ends in murder and the downfall of a great dynasty, in a 2 hour 37 minute, decade-spanning melodrama that is paradoxically both slick, and unpolished.
House of Gucci delivers many of the surface-level pleasures one would expect from a big, glossy Hollywood movie about sexy people doing sexy things – a Perfume Opera, if you will – but there is something underneath that’s more solid than that. Stories about “great houses,” whether they’re about actual royalty, or a mafia family, or a fashion empire, are really about inheritance, and how generations rise and fall as they make the decisions that will determine if what they’re born with will be what they die with. In the early parts of House of Gucci, the two patriarchs, Pacino’s Aldo and Jeremy Irons as Maurizio’s father Rodolfo, are comfortably ensconced in their thrones. Aldo enjoys the sensual pleasures of being rich, and the vanity of being in charge, while Rodolfo (a former movie star) surrounds himself in nostalgia, dreamily watching his old movies in a haze of cigarette smoke, his skin an eerily white pallor as he gradually becomes more and more of a living ghost haunting his son.
As the old generation lingers in comfort and security, a new generation threatens to take charge – not just Patrizia and Maurizio, who marry despite Rodolfo’s snobbish objections, but also Aldo’s idiot son Paolo (Jared Leto), a schlubby oaf who fancies himself a fashion visionary despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. With Maurizio hesitant to actually get involved in the family business, it is Patrizia, the newcomer, who smells blood in the water and makes her move.
Lady Gaga’s performance as Patrizia Gucci is absolutely the #1 reason to see House of Gucci – she quite simply owns the screen as both a true movie star and as a serious actor. Those who suspected her A Star is Born performance was just an endearing one-off where she played herself have been proven completely wrong. This is not a one-note Lady Macbeth knockoff, not the acting equivalent of those cheap replica handbags sold on the black market, but a real, fully-felt performance of a woman who is neither a villain nor a girlboss hero. It’s obvious what Maurizio sees in her, despite some obvious red flags. She’s ambitious, she’s vivacious, she glows with the love of being alive, and the audience feels that in every second she’s on screen. There are stretches of the film where the focus shifts away from Patrizia to how Paolo tries to make a name for himself, or how Maurizio finally steps up and becomes a true Gucci – and yet this is undeniably her movie.
Outside of Lady Gaga, the rest of the movie feels like a somewhat confused mixture of clashing tones and styles. Adam Driver delivers a performance with a lot of integrity and brooding intensity, while Jared Leto plays Paolo like a cartoon chef decorating a pizza delivery box. Puccini and George Michael coexist alongside each other on the soundtrack. Scott’s direction is not quite the gaudy excess you might expect, but is actually rather restrained and even cool, with the somewhat desaturated colors underplaying the garish ‘70s and ‘80s fashions. And yet this clash is oddly fitting. House of Gucci is not a true embodiment of sprezzatura – the Jared Leto performance says “watch me, watch me” with a try-hard quality that’s constantly showing its effort – but in its embrace of both obvious charms and obvious imperfection, it reaches a dissonance that is actually quite fascinating.
In the same way that the elegance and prestige of the Gucci brand gets diluted by the constant bickering of the backstabbing Gucci family, until one by one they are forced out of the company, House of Gucci takes the gorgeous Italian locales and the beautiful retro fashions and places a cast of disjointed human performers in the middle of them, performers whose inherent imperfection almost undermines the beauty. Yet the result is in fact more interesting than a perfectly made movie where everything is just so, because instead of sitting back and letting the film simply wash over you, the viewer is constantly on their toes about what tone or emotion will strike them next. This will not work equally for everyone, but that clash between glossy perfection and unwieldy imperfection makes the film one worth absorbing.
House of Gucci is now playing in theaters.