READY TO WEAR ( PRET-A-PORTER) ***. Produced & directed by Robert Altman. Written by Altman and Barbara Shulgasser. Photography, Pierre Mignot & Jean Lepine. Music, Michel Legrand. Cast, alphabetically: Danny Aiello, Anouk Aimee, Lauren Bacall, Kim Basinger, Michel Blanc, Anne Canovas, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Rossy De Palma, Rupert Everett, Kasia Figura, Teri Garr, Richard E. Grant, Linda Hunt, Sally Kellerman, Laurent Lederer, Ute Lemper, Tara Leon, Sophia Loren, Lyle Lovett, Chiara Mastroianni, Marcello Mastroianni, Tom Novembre, Stephen Rea, Sam Robards, Tim Robbins, Julia Roberts, Giorgianna Robertson, Tapa Sudana, Lili Taylor, Tracey Ullman, Camille Vivier, Forest Whitaker. A Miramax release. 134 min. English with some subtitled French and Italian. Rated R (sex, language).
On TV a few days ago was "Just for You," a1952 movie with Bing Crosby as a producer of Broadway musicals, and Jane Wyman as his leading lady. It isn't an especially good film, but what struck me was that the chorus girls were immeasurably heftier than their counterparts of today and fashion models.
Then, watching "Ready to Wear," the contrast between then and now became positively a mega-difference. You see a lot of models, either parading or backstage, and near the end you watch them parading stark naked, all looking like clones.
This is the most profound statement I can make about Robert Altman's movie. Centering on a big Paris fashion show, a kind of Olympics of haute couture, it is a misanthropic view of the world of ready to wear garments --with no depths, revelations or insights-- but with several excursions and incursions, including a wrongly suspected case of murder. As a result the critics have savaged this film. I'm interpreting their reactions as disappointment that RTW is not a classic piece of classy couture but a crazy quilt instead. But I liked the quilt, and by now the public's word-of-mouth is positive too. Obviously, misanthropy has its own appeal.
What Altman does, pretty typically, is to mix, match or unmatch a multitude of characters and happenings around the show, with the crossing of paths, simultaneous conversations and satirical barbs that Altmanites appreciate. He also introduces documentary footage into his setups, quite a tour-de-force in editing.
It's all quite entertaining though not as memorable as some earlier Altmans (" MASH", "Nashville," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" etc.) It may even be a forgettable comedy since its concerns are far from those of the huge majority of the public. But the going's good all the way.
The critics have blamed the movie for being skin-deep. Did they expect Descartes or Kant on the ramp? The subject itself, though taken with the utmost solemnity by designers and their cohorts, is not exactly a world-shaking social/intellectual issue. If anything it shows that talent and IQ don't necessarily go together.
The film has also been accused of too sketchy depictions of its characters. Well, look at the cast and figure out how much time can be devoted to each performer. In fact, the very point with all those people is that if you've seen a little sample of each one you've seen all there is to them. And it must be said that no matter how brief many appearances are, they get -- often in a flamboyant way-- a lot of mileage from mere sketches or vignettes. And along those lines, the film has a large number of shots or scenes that capture Paris with an insider's precision, all the more impressive since Robert Altman is perceived as a very American guy who could, abroad, be no more than an accidental tourist. (Note too the early, realistic conceit in a shot of French perfumes in Moscow).
Where Altman also scores is that his choice of actors seems to have been dictated by his interesting, amused and non-snarling misanthropy. While deglamorizing the fashion industry, he deglamorizes his own thespians too. Most of them, especially the women, are, to put it conservatively, of a certain age, with their heyday behind them and their looks faded, assuming they had them in the first place. Of course, Anouk Aimee and Sophia Loren have aged gracefully, but look around and you find nary a true blood pressure-raising hunk or hunkette. Unless of course you have a thing for Aiello, Bacall, Blanc, Garr, Hunt, Kellerman (though this one is holding up allright), Lovett, Ullman and such.
There is, of course Pretty Woman, but could it be a constant accident of photography that her weak points are brought out, notably her Bob Hope nose?
Roberts and Robbins by the way are two of the characters who are kept outside the centripetal fashion shows. Both are reporters, both are thrown together in the same hotel room, both start out as antagonists and end up in bed, both transmit home news that they see on TV. It's quite funny and I am convinced that Altman expands his satire by mocking movie cliches of such encounters.
The movie's production values are superior, the camera knows what it wantsm the score by Michel Legrand is excellent and original. The acting is good, with my second prize going to Kellerman and the first to Kim Basinger, who is not eveybody's darling. Here, as a fashion TV reporter, she too is harassed (in the old sense) by her duties and often seen deglamorized as there's not always time for fresh makeup. But with her exaggerated Texas accent and a voice shaking with excitement, as she fawns, squiggles around microphone in hand, gets trivial responses to even more idiotic, breathless questions, Basinger is the perfect ninny, and, for a change, memorable.
Altman also does clever things around clothing that is peripheral to fashion. Robbins has lost his suitcase, Mastroianni circulates with stolen clothes, people hide in clothes closets, Loren wears an enormous red hat at a funeral.
I grant you that the component anecdotes do not always make sense, especially the Mastroianni-Loren part, but isn't this a pleasant diversion of hamming it up Italian style?
The case of Stephen Rea is more complicated. He is a superstar fashion photographer that three rival lady fashion editors are trying to manipulate and cajole into a contract. Rea, who is the scum of the earth, variously humiliates them and snaps pictures of the H-moment. The motivation may be sadism but the purpose is unclear, unless Altman, the filmmaker, is deviously telling us that the lens is mightier than the sewing machine. Even so, it is well-nigh impossible to snap so fast so many pictures in available light with a tiny Minox camera. Product placement?
Some reviewers have have criticized the running gag of people stepping on dog poop, others have wondered what its symbolism is. The answers are: not a gag, not a symbol. Ask any Parisian.