Film

Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci disappoints, but the cast’s committed performances still make it worth watching. By Isabella Trimboli.

House of Gucci

Adam Driver and Lady Gaga in House of Gucci.
Adam Driver and Lady Gaga in House of Gucci.
Credit: Fabio Lovino / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc

Lady Gaga would like you to know the lengths to which she went to embody socialite-turned-murderer Patrizia Reggiani in Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci. She spoke in an Italian accent for nine months. She carbo-loaded on pasta and bread. She wrote an 80-page biography of Patrizia. She pushed herself so hard that she vomited repeatedly during production. By the end of filming, she required a psychiatric nurse by her side.

Since pop’s principal maximalist first pranced around in crab-claw-shaped heels, she has laid bare the demands of stardom. Her work is never relaxed or effortless. She presents a femininity of extremes: theatrical and exhausting, really hard work. “Everybody wants to be famous but nobody wants to play the game,” she told a journalist in 2008. “I’m from New York. I will kill to get what I need.”

This is all to say that she’s uniquely suited to Scott’s latest true-crime tale, playing a Milanese bourgeois who wrestles her way into one of Italy’s most prestigious fashion families – and refuses to relent when she’s booted out.

House of Gucci is a recount of two overlapping scandals. First, the murder of Maurizio Gucci, organised by his ex-wife, Patrizia Reggiani, in 1995. The second is how the Gucci empire – through mismanagement and fraud – fell out of family hands forever.

The film’s earliest scenes are dedicated to the couple: their initial meeting at a masquerade party and Patrizia’s eagerness to lock down Maurizio (a gawky, bespectacled Adam Driver). They’re a misaligned couple from the start. She’s uneducated and rich, but not the right kind – the daughter of a man who runs a truck business. Maurizio is a law student looking to extricate himself from the expectations of his family. When Maurizio wants to propose, his father immediately disapproves, cutting him off and castigating Patrizia as an opportunist out for his money.

This is not exactly true: Patrizia is more interested in the power that comes with her new last name. While the pair spend their early marriage living modestly, with Patrizia’s nudging Maurizio re-enters Gucci. Years of family spats, deception, clashing ambitions and tax avoidance ensue. As the business’s dodgy dealings reach a head, the marriage sours. Hiding out from Italian authorities in the Swiss Alps, Maurizio asks for a divorce. This request is not received well. “You are a painful appendage that needs to be removed,” Patrizia seethes in a threatening voicemail. After a period of fruitless spell-casting with her friend and confidante, the mystic Pina (Salma Hayek), Patrizia decides on a more resolute, violent plan of action.

From the first moment Gaga appears onscreen she’s magnetic, tugging at her too-tight dress as she hops out of a car. Much has already been made of her brilliant line delivery – the sacrilegious holy trinity “Father, Son, and House of Gucci” that appeared in the film’s trailer became queer canon before the film’s release. Her performance is revelatory not only through diction but also through distinctive gestures. The way she licks a spoon, clasps her hands together while smoking a cigarette, or cups a whisky glass as if it holds some sacred elixir – these movements convey Patrizia’s audacity but also her grave uncertainty, the ambient anxiety of power held together only by the flimsy strands of marriage.

Gaga is in good company. Jeremy Irons plays the svelte, sickly Rodolfo, Maurizio’s father. His brother and shifty business partner is Aldo, an emphatic Al Pacino slathered in spray tan. But the most absurd transformation is saved for Jared Leto, disguised under mounds of prosthetics and padding as Aldo’s incompetent son, Paolo. He spends most of the film holding onto delusional dreams of his own fashion line, tending to caged pigeons and delivering goofy one-liners. So much of the satisfaction derived from House of Gucci comes from witnessing these stars fumble their Italian accents: from Gaga’s thick diction that slides into Soviet territory, to Leto’s hammy cadence, all elongated As and Os, which seems more low-budget takeaway pizza ad than member of Italy’s upper echelons.

If the cast’s committed, playful performances weren’t so much fun to watch, the film’s flaws might have been more grating. It has a sluggish pace, a tendency to overexplain and an abundance of screen time dedicated to conspiratorial meetings.

Like Scott’s previous true-crime chronicle of the super-rich – 2017’s All the Money in the World, about the kidnapping of oil tycoon John Paul Getty’s grandson – House of Gucci’s purpose seems muddled. The film cannot work out if it wants to be prestige, a lesson in greed or a soapy spectacle. So wrapped up is he in the film’s plot points that Scott fails to make an interesting comment on anything, except the most basic truisms, so parroted that they have lost all meaning: wealth corrupts, money is power, status is everything.

There are moments of extravagance, but Scott doesn’t luxuriate in these scenes long enough to create any solid critique of vanity and capital. The fashion is surprisingly restrained, dull in its allegiance to historical accuracy. This lack of imagination extends to the music. House of Gucci makes some of the most obvious song choices in history: David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes”, Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”, New Order’s “Blue Monday” – chart-toppers that add nothing to the emotional tenor of the film, and act instead as rudimentary time stamps.

Disappointing, too, are the real-life omissions that are rife with cinematic possibility and which could have pushed the film into more comedic territory. The film concludes abruptly at Patrizia’s trial, but her antics didn’t end there: in prison she kept a pet ferret named Bambi. A 2016 profile in The Guardian described her walking around Milan with a macaw perched on her shoulder, begrudgingly wearing a Zara dress. I can think of no image better suited to the screen than Gucci storefronts adorned with handcuffs, which is alleged to have been the case in Italy the day of Patrizia’s conviction.

Fashion and violence will always remain a point of fascination, as well as a profitable enterprise. There’s Antonioni’s counterculture thriller Blow-Up, or, more recently, the tacky Ryan Murphy series The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. Paul Thomas Anderson’s chilly Phantom Thread had a whiff of the macabre. Are we drawn to the contrasts that this collusion conjures: beauty and violation, glamour and dread, style and domination? Or is it no more than the obvious: that audiences will always be gleeful at the revelation that the powerful and glamorous, cordoned off from the rest of us, are a little depraved, rotten under all that fine chiffon?

House of Gucci doesn’t bother to ask the question. It certainly doesn’t answer it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 15, 2022 as "House of Gaga".

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Isabella Trimboli is a writer and critic based in Melbourne.

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