Thursday, September 22, 2011

Modern Film Classics: “Prêt-à-Porter”

Original American poster
 The great filmmaker Robert Altman was never concerned about the fashion industry. However, in the winter of 1984, he found himself in Paris during Fashion Week, was brought into a darkened tent to view a fashion show, and claims that he was absolutely dumbfounded by the power of the show. This was the circus, he thought to himself, and he resolved to make a film about the fashion industry.

Given that Altman’s career was in the doldrums at the time, following the stinging failure of his misbegotten Popeye motion picture in 1980, he didn’t have much creative freedom or financiers to realize his vision. However, the one-two punch of 1992’s The Player and 1993’s Short Cuts returned him to the forefront of American film directors, capped off by back-to-back Best Director Oscar nominations. The then-new generation of stars, along with his former 70s acting stable, clamored to work with him. It was in this atmosphere that he made 1994’s Prêt-à-Porter.

In the winter of 1994, Altman was granted permission to make a multi-narrative comedy about the fashion industry. Accordingly, he was given unprecedented access to a number of fashion shows to give verisimilitude to his film: Sonia Rykiel, Issey Miyake, Jean-Paul Gaultier and many others. He was therefore also able to film a number of international models at work, including Helen Christensen, Tatjana Patitz, Carla Bruni and “the triumvirate” of Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington. Even Icelandic singer Björk makes a cameo on the runway in the Gaultier show. The inclusion of actual designers and their shows into the film lends it greater credibility, and a much better sense of time and place.

The cast itself boasts a “who’s-who” of international film stars and acclaimed character actors. These include (and this list is by no means exhaustive): Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Lauren Bacall, Julia Roberts, Tim Robbins, Rupert Everett, Anouk Aimee, Richard E. Grant, Forrest Whittaker, Ute Lemper, Lili Taylor, Kim Basinger, Rosy de Palma, Tracey Ullmann, Teri Garr, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sam Robards, Chiara Mastroianni, Jean Rochefort, Michel Blanc and Sally Kellerman. A number of other celebrities and designers make appearances as well, including Cher, Harry Belafonte, Thierry Mugler, Paolo Bulgari and Elsa Klensch.

Crowd scene: Bacall, Kellerman, Hunt, Basinger, Grant
The film follows a fashion designer whose son has been bankrupting her business and who cheats on his wife; two gay fashion designers whose aesthetics clash but who carry on a secret affair; an incompetent American fashion reporter whose sincerity is no match for the outrageous answers designers give to her inane questions; a husband-and-wife from Marshall’s who appear to be on a covert mission; a “bad boy” fashion photographer who is courted simultaneously by the (fictional) editors-in-chief of Vogue, Elle and Women’s Wear Daily; two American reporters who hate each other but end up in bed together all week long; and two old lovers meeting again for the first time, after many years. (That last one stars, for those who love Italian film, Loren and Mastronianni, who re-enact the iconic seduction from Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow one more time.)

Bjork, at the Gaultier show
Critics eviscerated the film when it was first released at Christmas 1994. Trouble started already when Miramax films realized that Americans were not familiar with the term and the film was given the title Ready to Wear. The governing universal criticism was that there was no point in lampooning an industry that regularly pokes fun at itself, and doesn’t take the aesthetics too seriously. They were not impressed by the fact that Altman got not only a stellar international cast to appear in Prêt-à-Porter, but were nonplussed by the fact that literally dozens of the world’s top designers and models agreed to make cameo appearances and have their collections filmed while on the runway. Roger Ebert stated (correctly) that the film’s satire could have been sharper and touched on the dark underbelly of the fashion industry. The criticism failed to recognize that fashion is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and that perhaps Altman’s objective about this insular world would give a sense of who would be there. If you threw a party, what do people want to hear about: the food, the venue, the music? No, people are most interested in who attended and, of course, what they wore.

European poster
Prêt-à-Porter follows a number of narratives interweaving these dozens of characters. We don’t have enough time to follow each thread so that it becomes a character study, and that’s exactly the point. Altman gives the viewer what we now take for granted through media outlets such as Fashion Television: access. Not just anyone gets to be invited to the shows, and in the era before the Internet, when runway shows are broadcast on designers’ websites, one doesn’t get to see fashions until they surface on the pages of Vogue several week later. It is for this reason why fashionistas back then coveted and sought to actually buy magazines. I have friends who have been collecting issues of Vogue for decades (they started in high school and still continue collecting to this day) and maintain them in painstakingly chronological order. There’s a line from Sex and the City’s fourth season when Carrie Bradshaw recalls her early days as a struggling writer: “When I first moved to New York and I was totally broke, sometimes I would buy Vogue instead of dinner. I felt it fed me more.” It’s no surprise that fashion itself has attained status as contemporary art, as evidenced by the Costume Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And Lady Gaga owes considerable debt in her Haus of Gaga designs to such iconic designers as Gaultier, Issey Miyake and Vivienne Westwood. Prêt-à-Porter serves as a great record of fin-de-siecle fashion, where it came from, how it evolved, and points to where it might go next. Bill Cunningham would appreciate this film very, very much.

Loren and Mastroianni, together again
The film also boasts one of the greatest soundtracks of all time. The disc boasts Ini Kamoze’s smash hit “Here Comes the Hotstepper”, an ethereal remix of the Cranberries’ “Pretty”, and Deep Forest’s glowing “Martha”. The rest of the disc features The Brand New Heavies, Lenny Kravitz, Janet Jackson, dancehall artist Supercat and the Rolling Stones. If you’re lucky enough to have a physical hard copy of the liner notes, you will see Altman’s inspiration for making the film.

Prêt-à-Porter is available in limited quantities on DVD, and with Altman’s passing in 2006 at age 75 after a storied career, it is unfortunate that he will no longer be able to make a masterful commentary on how he made the film.