Lady Gaga delivers an impeccable performance as Patrizia Reggiani that elevates Ridley Scott’s decidedly uneven, inspired-by-true-events family drama House of Gucci, released in US theatres on November 24th. At its best it’s an intriguing, delectable prestige soap opera populated by an impressive cast of Oscar-nominees and winners. At its worst, it is painfully slow (never when Gaga is on screen), with shifting tones, an awkward improvised vibe, and features an unrestrained, excessive performance by Jared Leto—acting his way though heavy prosthetic makeup as Paolo Gucci—that risks bringing the whole picture down with it.
As the film opens in 1978 we a meet a charismatic young Patrizia, who spends her days working for her step-father’s successful transportation business. One evening, she and a gay friend head out to a fabulous Milanese socialite party—apparently uninvited by the hostess—where Patrizia finds herself alone at the bar striking up a conversation with Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), heir to fifty percent of his family’s fashion business, who happens to be behind the bar. With Maurizio initially shy and inexperienced, the far more confident and gregarious Patrizia takes the reins and pursues him for a date. Forced to make a bold move, she playfully writes her phone number on the windshield of his scooter—Drag Race werkroom style—in red lipstick.
Maurizio’s rather vain former film actor father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), who sports a John Waters razor-thin moustache, disapproves of the match, and sends his second-in-command Domenico De Sole (an engaging, and devilishly handsome Jack Huston) to spy on the pair. Given prying eyes and with both of them still living at home, in order to spend some intimate time alone with one another, they take a rowing boat out on a misty lake in a gorgeously cinematic sequence.
Driver and Gaga play the early days of their romance, and the evolution of their characters throughout the film, with beautiful nuance and prove to be compelling screen partners. All their scenes sizzle, and they both bring a richness to their roles that gives colour to screenwriter Roberto Bentivegna’s rather uninspired dialogue, yet there’s little opportunity for them to fully explore their characters’ psychological drives. In fact, that aspect had me wishing that this true crime saga had been given the Ryan Murphy mini-series treatment, like the excellent The Assassination of Gianni Versace, which would have given scope for more insight into their inner lives.
Although the love between the pair seems genuine enough, clearly part of the draw for the naive but ambitious Patrizia is the portal that a relationship with Maurizio offers her to the Gucci’s magnificent wealth and their place in high society, and her transformation has a satisfying touch of Eva Perón in Evita about it.
While Rodolfo threatens to cut off his son if he weds Patrizia, Rodolfo’s brother, Maurizio’s uncle Aldo (Al Pacino) immediately warms to Patrizia when he visits from New York and has far more time for his nephew than he does for his own son, the rather eccentric Paolo, a frustrated fashion designer trying to get his work produced by the family business. As the film progresses, the family drama intensifies—along with Leto’s performance—and Maurizio becomes increasingly resentful of Patrizia inserting herself into Gucci business affairs, while he gives her reason to be jealous of the attention he is paying to another woman, Paola (Camille Cottin). All of which eventually leads their bad romance (sorry) to take a tragic turn.
Some of House of Gucci’s most enjoyable scenes are between Patrizia and her psychic confidant, the feline loving Pina Auriemma (a fantastic Salma Hayek). As the two take mud baths side by side, and hatch a despicable plan, there’s an intimacy and even a sapphic vibe between them that suggests things might be more than platonic. Gaga and Pacino sharing the screen is another delight. You can almost feel how thrilled she is to be acting opposite the movie legend and she rises to the occasion with ease. On the other hand, Pacino and Leto sharing the screen in a later two-hander becomes a little difficult to watch, with both of their performances feeling unfocused and as if they’re making up their own dialogue on the fly. While the film’s slowest moments come courtesy of Pacino’s reactions, particularly in one boardroom set scene where he sits in silence taking in some news.
Elsewhere though, Harry Gregson-Williams’ score helps maintain the tension, while the movie is given a huge lift by its staggeringly good soundtrack—surely one of this year’s best—which helps immerse us in the time period and features the likes of Blondie, Bowie, Donna Summer, Eurythmics, the sublime Baby Can I Hold You Tonight duet performed by Pavarotti and Tracy Chapman, and an ingenious and memorable use of George Michael’s Faith, among other aural highlights.
Although there’s some typically excellent work by frequent Scott collaborator, Oscar-winning costume designer Janty Yates, given the film’s title I would have appreciated even more of a focus on fashion, but the runway show sequences, such as 1983 Versace show, are brilliantly realized and there’s a lot of fun to be had with the appearance of famous figures like Anna Wintour (a fabulous Catherine Walker), André Leon Talley, and Tom Ford (Reeve Carney) who made Gucci sexy, and hugely profitable, when he became creative director in the 90s.
In an age where international television and movies have become more mainstream in the US, there’s something that feels a bit dated about the decision to have the cast use Italian accents as they communicate with one another in English, but given the film’s period setting and the big budget Hollywood glamour of it all, complete with exotic locations, the approach largely works. A few problems do emerge though with some characters appearing to be struggling to express themselves, as if they are speaking in a foreign language, which feels illogical, rings false and distracts in moments when for instance Leto as Paolo mispronounces mouse as “moose”.
The bottom line is, despite its flaws, if you’re a Lady Gaga fan—and let’s face it who isn’t?!—House of Gucci is unmissable, but without her presence it would have been quickly forgettable.
By James Kleinmann
House of Gucci opens in theaters only Wednesday November 24th 2021.