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Non-Review Review: House of Gucci

At its core, House of Gucci is the story of how the handbag is made.

Trying to convince his nephew Maurizio to take the reigns on the family business, Aldo Gucci explains that the cows that provide the leather for the company’s products are part of a long dynasty. Much like Aldo and his brother Rodolfo inherited the company from their own father Guccio Gucci, these cows are the direct descendents of the animals upon which the brand was established. To Aldo, Gucci is a fmaily business, right down to the cows that are fattened for slaughter. Aldo insists that the cows deserve praise for what they have given their owners. However, the cows still inevitably get skinned.

Where there’s smoke…

House of Gucci returns time and again to this animal imagery. “Gucci is a rare animal,” Domenico De Sole warns Patrizia Reggiani at one point, as the family consider how best to maintain the brand. “It must be protected.” It’s no coincidence that, towards the climax of the movie, the investors debating the future of the family’s ownership of the brand enjoy delicious cuts of steak. It’s rare, of course, the blood visible as they cut into it. The imagery is hardly subtle. Perhaps Aldo and his family have more in common with the cows than they’d like to acknowledge.

House of Gucci feels like something of a companion piece to two other recent Ridley Scott films, The Counsellor and All the Money in the World. Both feel like extrapolations of themes that have bubbled across the director’s filmography, from his earliest work on movies like Alien and Blade Runner. They are cautionary tales about the terrible things that people will do to one another for money, shaped by the ironic understanding that even after all these terrible things are done, nobody really wins. House of Gucci is not a particularly subtle movie, but it doesn’t need to be.

Glass act.

House of Gucci is similar to The Counsellor and All the Money in the World in other ways, as a movie that feels significantly less than the sum of its parts. Then again, what parts they are. House of Gucci doesn’t really hang together cohesively as a movie, often feeling like several smaller movies wrestling for control of the narrative. Every major member of the cast feels like they are the star of their own movie, but not necessarily an essential part of this movie. House of Gucci puts Howard Hawks’ “three great scenes” hypothesis to the test, compiling a number of compelling individual scenes that rarely add to something greater.

House of Gucci is an interesting, disjointed, uneven but strangely compelling study of what wealth does to people – particularly when it no longer needs them.

A familiar ring to it.

Running two-and-hours-and-a-half, it’s tempting to assume that House of Gucci might work better as a television miniseries than as a feature film. After all, it seems like most of mid-budget adult cinema has migrated to prestige television. More than that, Ridley Scott himself has experience in the medium, both with his work on Raised by Wolves and in guiding the upcoming Alien project for FX. Looking at the structure of House of Gucci, with its sprawling cast and its many betrayals, it seems easy enough to imagine a six-episode prestige series with the same cast and crew.

However, there’s soemthing very deliberate in the structure and rhythms of House of Gucci. For all that the movie is disjointed and uneven, it builds a cumulative effect over its runtime. The decision to open the film with an extended look at the romance between Maurizio and Patrizia adds a lot of gravity and weight to what will follow, suggesting that the two characters did actually love each other at one point and were capable of finding happiness. House of Gucci argues that this happiness was found far from the corrupting influence of the Gucci family, in the modest lorry “empire” run by Patrizia’s father.

That old song and dance.

House of Gucci plays as a series of escalations over the course of its runtime. It feels like a much more combre and tragic meditation on the idea of “excess” than something like Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. After all, the movie assumes the audience has some casual familiarity with the case that provides the narrative spine, opening at the story’s climax and then jumping back to show how the characters ended up at that point. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski filters the movie through a cold desaturated lens, so that even the beautiful summers in Tuscany seem chilly.

House of Gucci is autumnal long before the characters retire to a ski lodge in Switzerland, with its dark shadows and half-empty churches. Maurizio’s father Rodolfo is played by Jeremy Irons as a sort of fashion vampire, relying on his man servants to shuffle him around the house, lounging in a screening room where he can watch all of his old movies on a loop as a way of maintaining the illusion of vitality. When Maurizio confronts Rodolfo about his plans to marry Patrizia, he do so in a room decorated with cuttings from Rodolfo’s film clips. It’s already a mausoleum.

A cold customer.

It is something of a cliché to suggest that wealth inevitably corrupts everything that it touches, but House of Gucci leans into that idea. At the start of the film, the company remains under the control of Rodolfo and Aldo, both of whom seek to exploit the property in different ways. Early in the movie, Aldo proposes plans to open a Gucci mall in the shadow of Mount Fuji. “Gucci doesn’t belong in a mall,” Rodolfo scoffs. “It should be in a museum.” The question that divides the brothers is how best to exploit the company they inherited – whether to preserve it like Rodolfo wants or to mass produce it as Aldo intends.

All of the characters in House of Gucci have a vaguely cartoonish – and perhaps even monstrous – sensibility. As played by Al Pacino, Aldo is something of a grotesque troll. House of Gucci uses Pacino’s physicality in an interesting way, perhaps reflecting an aging actor growing a bit more comfortable in their later years. House of Gucci makes a point to emphasise Pacino diminutive stature and his pot belly. Aldo is presented as a character defined in some way by his vanity, but Pacino’s performance is remarkably and refreshingly unprecious. Pacino seems appreciably older in House of Gucci than he did in even The Irishman.

Al Do Money In Do World.

House of Gucci leans into the absurdity of Aldo surrounding himself with beautiful younger women and lustily coveting his nephew’s young wife. Indeed, there’s something playful in the way that House of Gucci leans into Pacino’s screen persona in a subversive and playful manner. With its Italian setting and true crime sheen, comparisons to The Godfather are inevitable. However, House of Gucci seems to be very deliberately playing with Pacino’s role in The Godfather III. Like the ageing Michael Corleone, Aldo tries to induct his estranged nephew into the family business, hoping to build a dynasty that will last beyond him.

Pacino deserves a great deal of credit for his work in House of Gucci, a movie that asks the actor to essentially replay one of his most iconic screen roles in a much more pathetic manner. Aldo is a man who likely fancies himself as Michael Corleone, but who is much more absurd and much less elegant. For all his plotting, Aldo’s schemes rarely play out as he intends. His efforts to heal the rift between Maurizio and Rodolfo come to nothing, as Rodolfo simply refuses the invitation to Aldo’s birthday. Aldo’s decision to bring Maurizio and Patrizio into the family business does not play out as he intended.

Glove affair.

As with All the Money in the World before it, House of Gucci works hard to make opulance and glamour look cheap and tacky. The characters in House of Gucci look great, but they are seldom as clever or as powerful as they claim to be. Repeatedly throughout the film, characters make decisions based on assumptions that they can control the outcome, only to realise how little power they actually hold in the grand scheme of things. Aldo is not a mafia don. He is not even a master criminal. He’s a greedy old man who assumes that his wealth and power will last long enough to protect him from any consequences.

With all of this at play, it almost makes sense that so much of House of Gucci feels like a tug of war between a set of actors who each appear to be starring in very different movies from one another. There are moments when the film threatens to tip into outright camp, such as whenever Jared Leto appears on screen as Aldo’s son Paolo. Paolo is the family screw-up. He is a tasteless and tacky designer who has lived such an insulated life that nobody has every truly challenged his delusions of greatness. Leto often seems to be auditioning for a live-action take on Mario, a performance that laughs at the very idea that “too big” exists.

“It’s-a me-a, Paolo!”

Indeed, this is one of the tensions that the movie never entirely resolves. House of Gucci struggles to strike a balance between the morbid tone and source material that seems to demand a tabloid sensibility. This is a film about excess, tastelessness, family squabbles and violence, populated by figures that are all aggressively larger-than-life. House of Gucci seems unable to rein its performers in, which perhaps explains why so much of the movie feels so disconnected from everything else. It’s an interesting thematic juxtaposition, but it is frustrating to watch.

House of Gucci seems to suggest that money works in its own best interests, and that raw capitalism is a force that cannot be controlled by those who would seek to harness it. Patrizia arrives in the Gucci family with ambition and appetite. Having grown up working class, Patrizia knows what it is to want in a way that members of the Gucci family will never understand. She recognises the potential of the Gucci brand, and the need to ensure its continued profitability.

Fashion crimes.

House of Gucci returns time and again to Patrizia and her relationship with Giuseppina Auriemma, a psychic who claims to see the future and who promises that Patrizia will receive everything that she wants. It’s not a science. It’s not a plan. It is just a vague, but driving, desire for “more.” As is the way in these grand tragedies, that greed becomes all-consuming. Patrizia turns Maurizio against his family, but also awakens a similar greed in him.

Scott is a director who is continually fascinated by capitalism, and the way that it acts on people. In Scott’s films, from Alien and Blade Runner through to All the Money in the World, capitalism often seems less like an ideology that radiates from people and more like a monstrous force that works through people. In Scott’s films, people are just mechanisms of capitalism. They are either manufactured products or expendable units. They are cogs in a larger machine, one that often operates beyond even their own perception.

A market decline in prestige.

The big question that hangs over House of Gucci is what exactly the “House of Gucci” actually is. Is it the family or is it the business? Is it an idea held together by blood and marriage or is it something that can take on a life of its own? Midway through the movie, Patrizia is horrified to discover that knock-off handbags are circulating on the black market. Aldo is less bothered, recognising the profit potential at play. “Gucci is whatever I say it is,” he asserts, a declaration of hubris that nevertheless hones in on one unsettling truth: the meaning of “Gucci” is not fixed, but fluid. It evolves. It’s volatile. It changes.

House of Gucci is built around the power struggles to impose a meaning and identity on Gucci, whether through Rodolfo’s conservatism, Aldo’s avarice, Paolo’s tastelessness, Maurizio’s cynicism or Patrizia’s ambition. The real horror of the movie is the idea that the company itself might be strong enough to exist any of these attempts to control it, and that everyone who tries to tame it might end up devoured by a monster that is – at least in part – of their own making. It’s a classic Ridley Scott narrative, as much a horror story of capitalism as anything in Alien or Blade Runner.

House of Gucci doesn’t entirely come together. It’s a frustrating collection of great ideas, memorable scenes and interesting performances, which never cohere into a completely satisfying movie. Then again, as a film about characters scramblign desperately to control the narrative, there are worst flaws for a movie to have.

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