American director Robert Altman returned with a vengeance to the spotlight after his success with The Player (1992). Suddenly, for the first time in fifteen years, he was in a position to realise ambitious pet projects – elaborate dramatic mosaics like his Raymond Carver adaptation Short Cuts (1993).
Prêt-à-Porter is a caustic look at the world of fashion – its tribes and rituals, its players and ruthless games. The film has a colourful ensemble cast, as if Altman wanted to put together a party colliding Lauren Bacall with Julia Roberts, Marcello Mastroianni with Lyle Lovett. Unfortunately – and I say this with a heavy heart since I am generally an Altman fan – Prêt-à-Porter encapsulates all the worst aspects of Altman's cinema.
It is quite a shock coming from the often grimly apocalyptic but profoundly impressive Short Cuts to Prêt-à-Porter. I had to remind myself that Altman has often made relatively lightweight films, frothy comic divertissements – usually with some vein of social satire and a sting of tragedy somewhere, like in A Wedding (1978). Prêt-à-Porter lacks that tragic sting. It goes in the direction of bedroom farce, with characters bumping into each other in closets, jumping into merry trysts, or fleeing from disastrous, humiliating encounters – such as those that the top fashion photographer Milo (Stephen Rea) inflicts on all the female editors who try to woo him.
Altman has a strange way with comedy. He is not into precisely timed visual gags the way Blake Edwards is; and he steers clear of the Woody Allen style of carefully crafted, rapidly delivered one-liners. Altman likes his comic mood to float weirdly above the film like a mist. It is a comedy of interactions, of behaviours. Sometimes this can create a quietly insane, infectious flavour, as in his previous withering ode to Americans in Paris, the underrated psychiatric comedy Beyond Therapy (1987).
Sometimes in his comedies Altman will use a funny anecdote as the basis for a ongoing plot thread: we see, in snatches, characters doing something mysterious for almost two hours, and then finally some kind of explanatory punch-line. That is how it goes in Prêt-à-Porter with the endless scenes of Louise (Teri Garr) shopping for clothes in Paris, all the while making strange communications with her husband Major Hamilton (Danny Aiello).
Altman stretches this kind of material out so far and so thinly at times that the punch-line can come as an anti-climax, an indifferent tag. Short Cuts used this kind of deflatory, anti-climactic effect in a very inspired and expressive way; it went very well with the general emotional malaise of everybody and everything in the film. But here this anti-dramatic technique just leaves the viewer flat.
Another reason why the comedy tends to float like a mist in these films has to do with the famous way that Altman works with actors. He likes to improvise. He encourages his actors to define in some detail their characters in terms of behavioural tics, appearance, habits, and so on. More deeply, he allows each actor to develop his or her own internal stories about what drives them, what their real secret is. Then Altman sets about staging a scene, creating a world into which these characters walk, responding to whatever comes up. Altman resembles a multi-media artists who sets in motion an event (many of his actors have testified to this), and then watches to see how that event turns out. This is certainly true of Prêt-à-Porter, where Altman threw his actors into the hurly burly of fashion shows, mingling the real players in this game (like famous fashion designers) with his actors, or putting his pretend journalists in the midst of a mass of real ones.
As usual, he gets some thrilling effects of spontaneity out of all this. But what he does not get is much humour. Many of the actors keep riffing on the same bit of character business – their vanity, or their competitiveness, or their gross superficiality – in scene after scene. It is sometimes embarrassing to watch performers including Kim Basinger and Tracey Ullman straining to come up with funny, throwaway ad-libs in the midst of this chaos. Others, like the wonderful Michel Blanc as a befuddled cop, just keep wandering in and out of the film like frozen quotations of themselves. Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni get a whole sub-plot to themselves which is little more than a tiresome, extended allusion to the glamorous parts they played in the '60s.
Perhaps the problem is that, finally, the actors have very little to work with, either in term of their own characters, or the thin anecdotes into which they are placed. It's hard to avoid the thought that Short Cuts turned out to be one of the director's best works precisely because it was, for a change, based more faithfully on a carefully considered script – with the contributions of the actors adding to the inherent richness of the material.
Prêt-à-Porter is clearly one of those Altman films where the script was simply a proposal, a sketch from which to start inventing on the set. But, as a premise, Altman's take on the fashion world is pretty banal. Fashion, for him, is basically just a glitzy, consumerist phenomenon, an empty, absurd media spectacle. It is an easy target, and Altman goes for all the obvious potshots.
The film starts with a ridiculous-looking parade for canine fashions – and just so we don't forget the joke, dog droppings often intrude underfoot in many scenes. At one point, British Vogue editor Nina (Ullman) berates journalist Fiona (Lily Taylor) for not asking any real questions. So Fiona asks a real question, something on the order of: "Why should we care about fashion when half the world's population is starving?" Nina, naturally, reels back in horror. Worst of all is a scene when Cher walks into a scene and gives Kitty (Basinger) a sanctimonious little speech. "Fashion is sad," she says. "It's about the loneliness of women ... I think it's not about what you put on your body, but what you put inside." Altman kept this totally unrehearsed and unexpected diatribe in the film because he thought it was "a gem that cut to the heart of what the film is trying to say." But 'fashion is sad' is a pretty trite message – give me Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire in Funny Face (1957) any day.
A film about fashion needs a filmmaker who has some real feeling for fashion, however ambivalent that feeling might be. Let's not forget that when Nashville (1975) first came out, the strongest criticism to stick to it was that Altman knew little about, and had no real feeling for, Country'n'Western music – and the same could be said of many who acclaimed it as a savage satire. All throughout Prêt-à-Porter, I kept wondering what Pedro Almodóvar could have done with this canvas. There is a director who really expresses a loving appreciation for fashion, gossip and kitsch in his work. Almodóvar can also be satirical and critical of these things – but it is satire from the inside, not the outside as in Altman's case.
Altman fails the subject of fashion because it immediately confronts him with the two areas of human experience he is weakest at dealing with. He tends to go all skittish as a director when he has to represent overtly feminine characters – women who really get into embodying a certain traditional feminine role (at least until the underrated Dr T and the Women ); and when he shows gay characters of either gender. Altman is at his best with tough characters – driven, deluded men, and hard bitten, long suffering women.
People who, on the contrary, define themselves through style, appearance, display and wicked fun seem to make Altman queasy, and instantly bring out the thundering moralist in him. He has a stab at celebrating gender confusion and flamboyant outrageousness in Prêt-à-Porter, but his heart's just not in it. That's probably the main reason why it fails to be very captivating as a film, and why it totally fizzles as a comedy.
© Adrian Martin February 1995