Hollywood has not covered fashion, as a theme or subject, as well as one might hope, given the importance of American movies in mandating and legitimising styles of dress. The notable exception is Stanley Donen’s Funny Face (1957), a Pygmalion story of Audrey Hepburn’s bookshop clerk transformed, under the guidance of Fred Astaire’s Avedon-like photographer, into a supermodel. It is a musical with lovely Gershwin tunes, and it is not realistic; but the characters are somehow convincing as types. Astaire’s character is efficient and professional, but he is also – he is Astaire – amiable and unselfish; Hepburn is incorruptible; the fashion editors and designers are tough but endearing. Fashion is shown as it was then: a big business, but not, as it is now, a corporate power that crosses national and class borders. Robert Altman’s new film, Prêt-à-Porter, is like La Dolce Vita grafted onto Funny Face. The unaffected and trusting Hepburn and Astaire would be marginalised or crushed in the fashion world portrayed here.
Altman has never enjoyed a sustained period of artistic success or critical favour, and recently there has been an interesting disjunction between the quality of his films and the enthusiasm of their reception. Vincent and Theo (1990) seemed a return to form, but was underpraised and neglected; The Player (1992), which was greatly overpraised, was regarded as a return to form; the very poor Short Cuts (1993) was admired by some people because it was an adaptation, though a leaden one, of the work of Raymond Carver – who, in death, is more highly regarded than any other American writer of fiction of recent years. Prêt-à-Porter has flaws, but its strengths are considerable; I think it is Altman’s best work since Nashville (1975), which it resembles in style, mood and organisation. It has received a hostile press in America.
For Altman, Paris is what Nashville was: the home of a cultural industry and the site of intersecting stories. There were 24 important characters in Nashville; by my count there are 24 in Prêt-à-Porter who participate in the shaggy dog tales that constitute the narrative. The main story, regarding the adventures of a Moscow tailor, Sergei (Marcello Mastroianni), is very clever in its pertinence to the theme of fashion: in it, seeming is everything, and events and personages are not what they appear to be at first, or even what they appear to be on a closer look; it is a story about fashion disguised as a murder mystery, and a murder mystery that becomes a love story.
The film opens with Sergei buying a tie in Red Square; this leads into the credits and a brilliantly inventive and headlong sequence, propelled by Michel Legrand’s sparkling small-combo jazz score, that takes the action to Paris, where, coincidentally, fashion magnates and tastemakers from around the world have convened for the generic prêt-à-porter collections. Sergei meets a fashion magnate at the airport and shares a cab with him into the city; when the magnate chokes to death on a ham sandwich, Sergei leaves the cab and flees as if the death were a murder. Photographs from the scene show a man fleeing, but they show only his clothing, not his face. Sergei sees the photographs on television and proceeds to adopt a series of disguises, using stolen or borrowed clothing. It emerges that the magnate’s widow, Isabella (Sophia Loren), who detested him and is not saddened by his passing, was a teenage lover of Sergei’s, and that the two had exchanged innocent vows of marriage. Sergei and Isabella meet late in the film, and he tells her his story, or a fragment of it; she begins to disrobe, and he lies in bed watching her – a reprise of a scene in De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow; he falls asleep before she finishes. ‘Two husbands, two corpses,’ she mutters, and she leaves him. Mastroianni as Sergei is bent, rumpled, and unshaven; he has a plaintive, pathetic quality, like a stock Yiddish character. It is never entirely clear what he is up to. We know that as a young man he moved to Moscow because he was a Communist. But he may have been involved there in something more sinister than tailoring; he may be mad; he may have intended to murder the fashion magnate and fled from a bad conscience.
Two American couples are also in Paris. Joe Flynn (Tim Robbins) is a sports reporter who is asked by his paper to stay over in Paris to cover the apparent murder. He dictates his stories over the telephone, plagiarising them from television broadcasts. His relationship with a fashion reporter from Houston (Julia Roberts) begins unpromisingly as a contrived romantic set-up, with both claiming the same hotel room; but it becomes interesting and somewhat troubling. These characters make their first appearance later than the others, creating an expectation that they will participate centrally in unravelling the mysteries of Sergei’s story. In fact they are wholly incidental to the main action; like neurotics in a Buñuel film, they remain in their room and seem unable to leave it; they embark on a cycle of drinking, sex, arguing and watching TV. The other American couple are Danny Aiello, as a burly Chicagoan who claims to be a buyer for a large department store, and Teri Garr, who plays his friend. They have apparently come to Paris to conduct an affair, although they are staying at separate hotels. Before meeting Aiello at his hotel, Garr purchases clothing from boutiques; one assumes that the skirts and blouses are for her, but they are really for him, and when they appear together in public he is in a matronly drag outfit. There is a thick-headedness about these two that makes their elaborate cross-dressing ritual more incongruous than it might have been. Of the other stories in the film, the only one that is not successful involves a trio of fashion editors (Sally Kellerman, Linda Hunt, Tracey Ullman, none of them convincing) who are entrapped by a manipulative photographer (Stephen Rea).
Altman’s manner of handling several stories or conversations simultaneously is well suited to the world of CNN and cellular communications that he wishes to portray, with Paris as his backdrop. In single scenes in Prêt-à-Porter, he creates an impression of physical depth by means of overlapping dialogue; over many scenes, by interweaving stories in a fugue-like manner, he creates a secondary, almost synaesthetic effect of stillness and contemplation. Other directors, notably Welles, have used overlapping or polyphonic dialogue, but to emphasise surface rather than depth; others – Dreyer, Ozu, Bresson, Antonioni – produce a trancelike effect over time (although their work has that quality in the short term as well). Altman is the only director I know of who does both. These techniques constitute what people think of as the distinctive Altman style; he used them in Nashville and elsewhere, but his visual handling in Prêt-à-Porter is more mellow and assured. Although Short Cuts showed that he is no Eric Rohmer in maintaining interest in numerous scenes that have two or three characters, he is very good at managing large groups of performers and in Prêt-à-Porter he constructs elegant and richly textured Night Watch-like tableaux out of light, bustle and commotion.
The satire in Prêt-à-Porter is directed not only at the fashion world but also at the connection between fashion and American television. In most of the scenes a television is on, even if no one is watching. The prêt-à-porter shows are covered for FAD TV by an inexhaustibly dumb Texan named Kitty Potter, who is played, in an inspired performance, by Kim Basinger. Kitty functions as a choral presence in the film. As for the question of whether television is stupid because Americans are, or vice versa, Altman seems to decide for the former. Kitty, after her final inane broadcast, passes her microphone to a French assistant who has been sneering at her, and who, though she has never broadcast before, is effortlessly eloquent and interesting when she does.
Throughout Prêt-à-Porter Altman undermines or suppresses specific meanings or statements of intent. In an interview in the obtrusively designed companion volume, which also contains the screenplay, diary entries, and some amusingly bad copy not written by him (‘The film Prêt-à-Porter is more about the crispy, flaky outside than the soft, chewy, delicious centre’), Altman is evasive and unforth-coming on his intentions and on other matters.(Interviewer: ‘Everybody’s always saying that film is the great 20th-century art form.’ Altman: ‘Well, it’s a medium.’) But there is a moral tendency in his satire of the fashion world. That world, in Altman’s portrayal, is one of sensation and not pleasure; the designers are talented, energetic, and depraved. Altman is prudish about sex, and is both frank about and disapproving of the sexual straying and experimentation of his characters. The prudery is not as insistent as in Short Cuts, where it underlay the relentless sordidness; the lowlifers in that film behaved, rather implausibly, like seminarians in their verbal dwelling on sex. But that may have been more Carver than Altman: moralism and fussiness are at the core of Carver’s hypernaturalism. There are also areas in Prêt-à-Porter where Altman, though he need not have been explicit about his intentions, could have been clearer. As in The Player, he brings on celebrities – Lauren Bacall, Cher, Harry Belafonte – as themselves or in marginal roles. It is hard to understand what Altman, a Hollywood insider, intends to achieve by name-dropping like an outsider.
Altman seems to regard the production of ready-to-wear styles by major designers as a marketing hoax perpetrated by large corporations, and as making fashion invasive as well as accessible. It does seem true that fashion is more important in the wider culture today than in years past. I came of age in the dowdy Seventies; the generation behind me seems more interested in fashion, and under its influence has adopted an apparently precise and unencumbered but in fact rather vague notion of pure style, promoted to an aesthetic in Quentin Tarantino’s films. A high fashion sensibility, or aspiration to one, is prevalent in the print media, where magazines, being closer to television, seem to be assuming a dominance over books.
It is worth trying to account for the uniformity and intensity of Prêt-à-Porter’s hostile reception by critics in America. Tocqueville observed that, in the arts, Americans value what is useful more than what is beautiful, and what is beautiful in so far as it is useful. This is still valid today, when what is useful is therapeutic. There are many instances in Prêt-à-Porter of capricious or unmotivated behaviour, and these have disoriented critics who expected the usual blunt Hollywood psychologising. The film does not fulfil their expectations with regard to another style of American comedy either, the blandly sarcastic, deliberately unfunny manner of David Letterman (which has its own downsided literary counterpart in Carver’s dreary and attenuated epiphanies and Didion’s distressed reportage). In Prêt-à-Porter Altman is deliberately frivolous and shallow because he has made a farce, not because he aims to be unfunny. With unusual directness, he recently declared Prêt-à-Porter to be both a farce and an essay. Being a farce (from the Latin farcire, ‘to stuff’), the action is severe, abrupt, concentrated; the essay form is open, digressive, exploratory. The co-existence of the two in Prêt-à-Porter gives the film its tension and momentum. Altman is intending to do one sort of comedy, and the critics want and expect him to do another. They have criticised him for failing to do what he had not intended.
Altman is an old man now, and in spite of the bitterness of much of the satire in Prêt-à-Porter, the film concludes on a resigned note. Altman is less interested in individual fashions than in the runway procession, which he handles as a sacramental, hieratic ritual. The final show is by Simone Lowenthal (Anouk Aimée), a designer whose business is failing. She is intelligent, and she has a heart; she could have been a character in Funny Face, whereas everyone else in the Paris fashion business is shown to be either stupid or a scoundrel. Immediately before the show she learns that her dissolute son has sold off the business to a Texas conglomerate; the clothing she was to introduce has been appropriated as part of the deal. She proceeds with the show anyway; all the models are unclothed except one, who is pregnant, and who wears a wedding veil. The models do not move in the usual jaunty, disco-driven, high-kicking step, but in a slow, stately wedding march. Here Altman offers, amid the garish setting of the runway, and with an approach to, and avoidance of, sexual exploitativeness, a gentle, benedictory vision. He follows this – it is a difficult scene to follow – with another slow procession, a funeral, in a sequence that is divided between some infants being photographed for a fashion advertisement, Sergei sleeping on a park bench nearby and a column of mourners bearing the coffin of the fashion magnate who choked to death. The procession wakes Sergei and lie joins it. In these set-pieces Altman creates a visual encapsulation of birth, marriage and death that is probably more potent for its link with the ephemeral delights of fashion.