Before the cameras even started rolling on Ready to Wear (formerly Pret-a-Porter), Robert Altman's mordant sendup of the fashion industry, the filmmaker had offended delicate sensibilities from New York to Paris and beyond. John Fairchild, editorial director of Women's Wear Daily, has led a massive preemptive strike against Altman in the rag-trade press, and while top designers like Sonia Rykiel and Thierry Mugler let him film their shows, Valentino and others slammed the door.
What each of them needs now is a good suit of armor.
Altman's busy exercise in couture shock is part pseudodocumentary, part bedroom farce and part murder investigation, but almost every delicious frame of it lays bare the vanity, frivolity and bitchery of a zillion-dollar enterprise whose sole function seems to be draping atrocities on the backs of apallingly starved models. In one memorable bit, we behold the lovely head of a model adorned with a red emergency flasher. No one in the crowd laughs. In fact, everyone applauds--just as they applaud every demonstration of ego these fatuous artistes can dream up.
Clearly, Altman hasn't had this much fun since he took the dreamers, fools and manipulators of Nashville down the road back in 1975 (unless it was savaging Hollywood in The Player). Ready to Wear is probably not his most profound movie, but it has a flair for getting intelligent about matters that are largely unintelligible. His contempt for the fashion world and its hangers-on is not complete--he's dazzled by the ornate theatricality of "ready-to-wear week" in Paris--but he's far too smart to take the circus seriously.
Altman is still the Hieronymous Bosch of filmmaking, and the Brueghel, so once again he crams 25 characters, a dozen subplots and a war of overlapping dialogue into a vivid tapestry of the idiocy, set around the spring shows. Kim Basinger's airheaded TV reporter, Kitty Potter, sets the movie's vaguely surreal tone as she grabs nonsensical interviews with designers in hotel lobbies and dressing rooms, then Altman lets fly with layer upon layer of satire while his audience plays the usual game of spot-the-star.
Fashion reporter Julia Roberts and sportswriter Tim Robbins are thrown together in a disputed hotel room, where they remain for the duration, flooded by champagne and lust. In a Felliniesque bow, Marcello Mastroianni, as a mysterious Italian once exiled to Moscow, rekindles a childhood romance with Sophia Loren, a Dior-clad merry widow wearing picture hats with the circumference of putting greens. While designers ranging from cool Simone Lo (Anouk Aimee) to streetwise Cy Bianco (Forest Whitaker) to pre-Raphaelite dandy Cort Romney (Richard E. Grant) bite and scratch for a share of the Paris spotlight, the cutthroat editors of Harper's Bazaar, Elle and British Vogue (Sally Kellerman, Linda Hunt and Tracey Ullman) prostrate themselves for the services of a trendy Irish photographer (Stephen Rea)--with the film's most hilarious results.
Danny Aiello is a pushy department-store buyer with an outrageous secret, Lyle Lovett a Texas cowboy-boot maker trying to take over a European fashion house, Tara Leon and Georgianna Robertson a pair of feuding model/sisters who are sleeping with the same man, and Lili Taylor a humorless reporter for the New York Times with a penchant for embarrassing questions.
As if all these raging egos and teeming intrigues were not enough, Altman and cowriter Barbara Shulgasser throw in the suspected murder of the head of the French fashion council (Jean-Pierre Cassel), a man everybody despised. They've done that, if for no other reason, because it gives them the chance to show a Parisian coroner eating a croissant in the midst of an autopsy.
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We also glimpse some of the actual runway shows, and we get some doses of that arch, curiously disconnected fashion-world jargon ("Bald and tattooed is not part of my vision; it's beyond deja vu"), courtesy of assorted characters and real-life CNN fashion maven Elsa Klensch. Ready to Wear's air-kissing motif works pretty well, but not nearly as well as its stepping-in-dog-dung motif--the director's thinly disguised commentary on haute couture in general and the empty-headed Paris whirl he shows us here in particular. The film is uneven, but it can be a real hoot. The finale, in which a canny Frenchwoman makes the ultimate fashion statement, has been telegraphed a bit, but that doesn't hurt its effectiveness much.
The picture might never have been made if Altman's wife hadn't dragged him to a Paris fashion show back in 1984. He dug in his heels at first, then, always thinking, saw the possibilities of a movie. Ten years later, and despite some pitched battles with the fussbudgets of the industry, here it is--another dark and funny commentary on the grand follies of modern culture, brilliantly detailed in unique Altmanian perspective.
All dressed up, with everywhere to go, you might say.