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House of Gucci ★★★

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Director: Ridley Scott

Stars: Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Jared Leto, Salma Hayek, Jeremy Irons, and Al Pacino

Released: 27th November 2021

After releasing the terrific The Last Duel, Ridley Scott is back in cinemas for the second time this year, with another big-budget adult drama, in time where those seem like an increasingly dying breed, with the melodramatic and richly performed House of Gucci. The film is immensely successful in painting the picture of Gucci’s empire and the assortment of big personalities that seem to undermine the family name. Yet, the film is undermined by a lack of balance, both structurally and tonally. Still, more importantly, it is uneven in the character perspectives that intermittently dominate the theme’s plot, which affects the pacing and character motivations for the worse. House of Gucci is nonetheless a success for the prolific director and his wonderful, always-on-form cast, which is engrossing in its look at the way these characters seduce themselves.

After a brief chance encounter with Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), a normal woman from humble beginnings, becomes enamoured with the inheritor of the fashion dynasty, and the two engage in a fairy tale romance of emotional and financial growth. The ensuing marriage affects Maurizio’s relationship with his father, Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), and his exile from the family. From here on, Patrizia begins to work on getting her and her husband back into the family business, manipulating, working with, and eventually betraying Maurizio uncle and cousin, Aldo (Al Pacino) and Paulo (Jared Leto), respectively (who both have their ideas of how to be involved with the Gucci name). As Patrizia begins to make moves that threaten the family and business hierarchy, Maurizio and Patrizia must come to terms with their consequences and their marriage, dramatically and lethally affecting their future forever.

The performances, in a lot of ways, are the film’s greatest strength. Lady Gaga is sensual, fearless, emotionally vulnerable, and erratic, her performance of Patrizia being on par with her incredible performance in A Star Is Born. Especially as the film loses focus of Patrizia, Gaga keeps our sympathies with her even as she begins to fall off the edge, the film tipping its toes into playing with audience morality. Adam Driver is equally excellent, but the script robs Maurizio of firm characterization in the film’s first half, Driver’s performance filling out those gaps, so by the end of the film, Maurizio is a fully rounded character. Jeremy Irons is here briefly but is commanding with a hint of warmth, and Jared Leto is making choices as Paulo, but it’s never distracting, and his ability to bring out the best in his other castmates is apparent. Paulo is a fascinating character, but the film doesn’t seem to be as interested in him, when he is arguably the character most afflicted by Patrizia’s actions, except for when his character serves as a broadening of the canvas that is the Gucci empire. It’s a shame because, yes, Leto is method acting, but there is a sense of emotional desperation and the need for acceptance that makes this his best performance to date. Pacino is sublime as Aldo, the patriarch who is more concerned with profit than elegance. He anchors the film in what it can at times forget: this is a family falling apart, and there is something inherently tragic about that. But the exceptional acting only goes to point out how the script is lacking in fully defined and consistent characterizations.

However, for everything House of Gucci seems to get right, it is balanced out by the things it stumbles over. Firstly, the film is a melodrama with hints of camp, but only from the script in the form of fun, sometimes corny dialogue, creating somewhat of a disparity between the story on the page and the directorial vision. In turn, this greatly affects the film’s pace, feeling more arduous at times during its second act rather than fun. Secondly, Salma Hayek’s character, Pina, is never contextualized in her relationship with Patrizia, so when the latter takes so much stock in the former’s fortune’s, it comes off as confusing as to why Patrizia would confide in this woman, only continuing to impact the at times poor characterizations. Lastly, the film’s greatest issue is its lack of a clear perspective, starting as Patrizia’s story, then briefly becoming Paulo’s film. It shifts to Maurizio before Scott finally goes back to Patrizia in the film’s last minute. As a result, the film feels unwieldy and unfocused at points, significantly affecting the pacing, adding to the sense that you are indeed spending what feels like years with these characters.

With a popping soundtrack and some terrific cinematography and lighting, House of Gucci is often enthralling and explores interesting ideas from a new outlook. Scott’s direction brings out the character’s essential aspects like the tepid masculinity of Maurizio and how Patrizia sees her lover as a numerical value, realizing her vapidity when she understands that to the family, she is just that, and how this affects her self-worth. The central conflict between Patrizia and Maurizio is that of world view: the former knows that the world is something you have to control, or it ends up controlling you. At the same time, the latter is fine with this as long it means he’s happy and separate from the family that seeks to have dominion over him. The film is at its best when it homes in on this, and the ways they make each other change and the toxicity of their relationship is bared for all to see.

House of Gucci has a lot on its mind. It has a lot of ground to cover, as it crosses the thematic intersection between identity in relation to namesake and what we are willing to sacrifice in the search for the feeling of “worth” is frequently fantastic and, at times, surprisingly emotional. Is Patrizia an original or a knockoff Gucci? Did she ever love Maurizio? Only one thing is for certain: she earns the name Gucci.

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