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Issue 21 March-April 1995 RSS

Pret-à-Porter (Ready to Wear)

Film

Miramax, 1995


I read in a gossip column that Lauren Bacall was at a party complaining about how Pret-à-Porter got retitled Ready to Wear in the US. Obviously she didn’t work for a percentage of the gross, because the last movie with a French title to make money in America was Gigi.

Americans aren’t good at French. They would have pronounced Porter the same way that they pronounce that substantial English brew of the same spelling. Actually they wouldn’t have pronounced it at all, because they would have stayed home rather than having to ask for a ticket in French. Americans fear embarrassment second only to slow death. But who can blame them? Why should they speak French? It only makes the French hate them even more.

The American fashion world, for the most part, didn’t dig Ready to Wear. They hated it. I think most of them didn’t like it because they weren’t in it - it wasn’t about them personally. The fashion world is a world of mass solipsism. Fashion c’est moi!

And of course it wasn’t insider enough, darling. I mean Steven Rea wasn’t really Steven, was he? Where was the hat? And where was the Anna character? And why wasn’t Karl in it? You can’t have a movie about fashion without Karl. There wasn’t even a hefty French guy with a ponytail and a fan! They also hated that Altman treated his friend Sonia Rykiel like a major player. Sacrilege, baby. But she makes sweaters!

Maybe what they really hated was that it wasn’t a semi-documentary about fashion, it’s a movie set in the fashion world, like Funny Face. What it’s really about is the fluffy side of life, which is an ancient and honourable part of filmmaking. If the fashion world can’t face up to the fact that it’s about fluff and not life and death, well, maybe it can take some consolation that it’s about contagious illness.

Was Pret-à-Porter realistic? Sure. At least as much as, say, a Dirty Harry movie is a realistic portrayal of cops. The only thing that struck me as false was one scene when the editorial triumvirate of Kellerman, Ullman and Hunt was shown in a tight shot at a fashion show and one of them was in the second row. A top editor at a top magazine would rather not go than sit in the second row.

For the most part, the characterisations of the fashion world characters were all within the realm. Richard E. Grant was perfection as the arch fop designer. Forrest Whitaker was genius as the hip, street wise designer. Kim Basinger was almost too good as the whitebread American TV commentator. I was hoping for more cameos, like, uh, where’s the naked Helena Christiansen from the advertising, but the designers who played themselves, Gaultier, LaCroix, Mugler, all gave very designery interviews. The worst you can say of it is that Ready to Wear is a fairly broad but comically realistic portrayal of an unrealistic world. The fashion world is about attitude and Altman nailed the attitude.

There is a lot of silliness in the subplot of the three magazines bidding for the services of the prima donna photographer played by Steven Rea. Would an editor fuck a photographer to gain his exclusive services? Would an editor get down on her knees? Mmm. Those bits didn’t bother me a bit. The only thing that bothered me was that American Vogue wasn’t represented. I guess there must have been a reason. Casting the Anna Wintour part wouldn’t have been easy, but I think Faye Dunaway or Sigourney Weaver or Mary Woronov could have had fun with the part.

What else was unrealistic? Maybe there was too much sex going on. I don’t think there’s really that much obsession with sex in the world of fashion. I think mirrors and money are much more the focus of desire. There was fashion in it, though. Vivienne Westwood and Xuly Bet made great cinematic clothes impersonating fictional designers played by Grant and Whitaker. It started me thinking what those Merchant Ivory period films would look like if Westwood took a crack at them.

I hesitate to discuss the finale, because like that other movie that has Forrest Whitaker and Steven Rea in it, this one has a little bit of a secret. But for those of you who have seen it - this movie does, to a certain extent demystify the allure of the fashion model by demonstrating that even gorgeous people sometimes look better with their clothes on.

But I like beautiful imperfections and I loved the scene and I think it has the potential to interest thousands of men in fashion who otherwise couldn’t care less. Besides that there’s lots to like in this film. I mean, how can you not like a Sophia Loren/Marcello Mastroanni film? Their profound cuteness alone makes it worth the while.

Robert Altman is one of the only working directors who makes movies as comedies of manners in the tradition of Lubitsch or Cukor or Sturges. He may be the only director in the world that could make stepping in dog droppings into a funny running gag. He doesn’t need to make movies about movies or movies about fashion. He could make a great film about pizza. He just chose fashion because he had more on it.

 

Glenn O'Brien


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First published in
Issue 21, March-April 1995

by Glenn O'Brien

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