Saturday, June 7, 2014


Sonia Rykiel with Helena Christensen, Christie Turlington and director Robert Altman


PRÊT-À-PORTER                  B  
aka: Ready to Wear
USA  (133 mi)  1994  ‘Scope  d:  Robert Altman              Official site

You Irish bastard! You wouldn’t know what to do with your fucking country if we gave it back to you!        —Nina Scant (Tracy Ullman) 

Heavily maligned and perhaps the messiest and most sprawling film of Altman’s career, actually expanding upon his experimentation in A Wedding (1978) when he doubled the number of main characters used in Nashville (1975), from 24 to 48, while here there is an international cast of over 60, exceeded perhaps only in Gosford Park (2001) where there are over twenty five separate plots, creating a wildly satiric French farce, inept murder mystery, and operatic melodrama featuring the players behind the scenes of the haute couture French fashion industry in Paris, where backstabbing, spying, double-crossing, blackmail, sleeping with the enemy, and outright theft are among the events seen constantly spinning out of control.  Previously Altman satirized the military in MASH (1970), the music industry in Nashville (1975), political hypocrisy in both H.E.A.L.T.H. (1980) and TANNER ’88 (1988), the movie industry in The Player (1992), so here Altman uses the snobbish importance of the fashion industry as a cynical and somewhat absurd stand-in for the world of art and entertainment, including his own role as a filmmaker.  In 1992, Altman actually directed a new William Bolcom opera McTeague at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, based on the original 1899 Frank Norris novel by the same name, the source material behind Eric von Stroheim’s silent classic GREED (1923), initially intended to run 8 to 9 hours, but reduced to only two hours by the studio, a plight Altman himself is familiar with as he’s worked along the fringe of the Hollywood industry. Bolcom specifically requested Altman, as he’d seen him direct a production of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” in the early 80’s at the University of Michigan where Bolcom teaches.  An operatic thread runs throughout this film, especially the way the highly decorative and experimentally alluring runway shows are presented, but as an expression of the artistic temperament behind the scenes, this is a rather exaggerated and grotesque portrait of the industry, though given the Altmanesque lambasting, thoroughly entertaining throughout.

What story there is, and there’s really not much of one, seems merely an excuse to assemble this international cast of characters, which is an interesting blend of fiction and reality, with literally dozens of cameo appearances of people playing themselves, where this feels like a large canvas with an infinite amount of interconnecting possibilities, continually moving characters on and off the screen, like a ringmaster of a circus who has to interact with the audience while he continuously gets various acts in and out of the Big Top.  Fashion is so much about a mixture of glamour and seduction, where the first half of the film accentuates how it’s little more than a playground for men’s fantasies, where Olivier de la Fontaine (Jean-Pierre Cassel) runs one of the most influential fashion houses until his unexpected death reveals he was despised within the industry, especially by his wife Isabella (Sophia Loren), though he was rumored to be having an affair with his sophisticated designer Simone (Anouk Aimée), while her arrogant and overly ambitious son Jack (Rupert Everett) feels it’s his place to step in and take over the business.  Isabella, however, wearing ever wider-brimmed hats, starts sitting in her deceased husband’s place on the runway, suddenly showing herself in public instead of the recluse she’s been for years.  There’s an amusing side story of Marcello Mastroianni sneaking around corners and assuming various disguises in search of Isabella, as the two have unfinished business from a notorious past, and while amusing, their scenes together never really gel.  As Jack is married to a gorgeous black supermodel, Dane (Georgianna Robertson), but seems to be sleeping with her sister Kiki (Tara Leon), male power is demonstrated by good looks and bedroom prowess.  While this power vacuum is being filled, there’s an interesting demand for the coolest and trendiest fashion photographer Milo (Stephen Rea), who wears dark glasses all the time and gives an understated, nearly numbing performance, allowing the three female fashion editors (Tracey Ullman, Sally Kellerman, and Linda Hunt) from Elle, Vogue, and Harper’s magazines (the three witches in Macbeth) to fight over his services, each of whom vies for an exclusive contract, so he ends up blackmailing all three.

By the second half of the movie, the women regain control, even by nefarious means, where the thread that holds everything together is the ditzy performance of Kim Basinger as Southern belle Kitty Potter, an utterly superficial American TV reporter from FAD-TV that continually pulls various designers, journalists, or other insiders in front of the cameras for fluff questions, where her charming and multilingual assistant Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni) barely utters a word, but always seems to find various subjects for the cameras.  Potter is an incessant force that may drive viewers crazy, as she certainly exemplifies the vacuousness of the industry.  The runway numbers are each exquisitely designed and presented, exuding a strength and confidence in the female body, where this is the only place the sex really sizzles, literally empowering the performers, which includes a healthy number of black female models.  When Jack undermines his own mother, secretly selling the business right from out underneath her to a millionaire Texas bootmaker (Lyle Lovett), as the fashion designer, Simone has her own thoroughly imaginative recourse, sending the models down the runway without a stitch of clothing, which is considered so avant garde, “so old, it’s true, so true, it’s new, the oldest new look, the newest old look:  the bare look,” that Kitty Potter no longer understands what fashion means anymore, handing the microphone over to Sophie who makes a brilliant on-the-fly assessment.  Along with The Player, this is another look at a culture obsessed with celebrity and narcissism, with dozens of other side stories and appearances, including Anouk Aimée and her classy assistant Pilar, Rossy de Palma from Almodóvar films, remain the class acts in the film, where Aimée makes a radiant and lifelike appearance while playing the most subversive role, while Lauren Bacall also makes a touted appearance as a colorblind American fashion designer.  German singer Ute Lemper plays an 8 and a half month pregnant supermodel that eventually turns eyes on the runway, where a running gag throughout the movie is guessing who got her pregnant.  While the film concludes with an affirmation of women’s choice, there is something especially liberating about having control over your own body, where it’s no accident that the older and more mature women have a huge impact in this film, countering the fashion industry’s love of youth, suggesting older women retain great beauty and composure, and certainly have more personality, even if the industry itself is too blind to recognize or appreciate it.  There are too many parallel similarities for Altman not to be talking about his own industry.

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