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Critical Review by Robert Hilferty
SOURCE: A review of Ready to Wear (Prêt-à-Porter), in Film Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 4, Summer, 1995, pp. 35-8.
In the following review, Hilferty states that, "Less about fab fabric than the tenuous fabric of society, Ready to Wear is an elaborate striptease of the human condition."
First, the facts.
Robert Altman's new film is not a "behind-the-scenes" look at the fashion world. Nor is it a particularly fashionable treatment of that world. Nor is it a conventional narrative complete with audience-identification protagonist and tidy plot. Nor is it much like Nashville, despite its many characters and multiple vignettes.
That's why it disappointed so many. The movie flew in the face of all expectation.
Altman's new cinematic panorama should be seen on its own terms first—then you can throw knives at the screen if you see fit. Ready to Wear is an idiosyncratic odyssey, an odd essay film with its own peculiar pattern and design. Far from being "unfocused," "flimsy," or "vapid" (recent critical put-downs), every element in the film—even down to the dogshit everyone's stepping in—has a rhyme and reason, and builds up carefully to the sublime finale: designer Simone Lo's naked défilé.
Although the movie juggles about three dozen characters and their overlapping situations, there emerges, amid the hustle and bustle of the splintered narrative, a dominant story line—that of Simone Lo (Anouk Aimée)—around which all others revolve like illuminating satellites.
What gets things rolling is Sergei Oblomov (Marcello Mastroianni), a 70-something master tailor who leaves Russia after the collapse of Soviet Communism and heads west in search of the love of his youth, his abandoned wife Isabella de la Fontaine (Sophia Loren). To get to her, he has secretly contacted her present husband, Olivier de la Fontaine, who is head of the French Fashion Council. Olivier meets Sergei at the airport and brings him back to Paris, but during a traffic jam on Pont Alexandre III, Olivier unexpectedly dies a déclassé death: he chokes on a piece of ham. Panicked, Sergei hops out of the limousine, and the chauffeur screams murder. Sergei jumps into the Seine. Although he's been falsely accused, he's safe: the authorities can't identify him because the only evidence they have are photos of what he was wearing.
Everyone in the fashion world seems more pleased than saddened by Olivier's sudden demise. Apparently he wasn't such a nice guy, and despite several claims by TV reporters that his death has eclipsed Paris's most important fashion week, prêt-à-porter proceeds as usual without a morsel of mourning—not even from his wife. Isabella thinks her husband is no more than the dog turd she steps in at the beginning of the film.
Simone Lo (changed from the original Lowenthal) acts more the widow, and everyone treats her as one—it's no secret she was Olivier's lover. Although she readily admits that she didn't like Olivier either, Simone seems to have some depth, unlike the other designers, who come off as frivolous, trendy, and self-important. Simone stands out as a genuine artist. Simone's son, Jack (Rupert Everett), makes a witty remark to characterize his mother: "You know, my mother makes dresses for herself. Dressing for men has never particularly interested her, although she's certainly undressed for a few of them. The main difference between men and women in fashion is this: women make dresses for themselves and for other women … a man makes clothes for the woman he wants to be with, or in most cases, the woman he wants to be." This not-so-innocent comment, situating fashion on the gender battleground, inadvertently provides the key to the entire film.
These divergent—and possibly antagonistic—attitudes about fashion and its relation to women are played out on the body of supermodel Albertine (Ute Lemper). On the eve of the biggest show in Paris, she shows up pregnant. Albertine can't fit into the clothes earmarked for her, but on a deeper level, she now presents an image of womanhood totally unfit for the runway. Simone, however, is the only one who adjusts quickly and calls her pregnancy "wonderful"; someone like Cy Bianco (Forest Whitaker) thoughtlessly explodes at her because she's ruining his show. Albertine calls him "woman-hater."
Albertine's bursting belly raises two interesting questions which are at the crux of the movie: "What is the essence of womanhood?" and "Who's the father?" The first question is implicit in women's fashion. But clothing intended to enhance womanhood is usually in the service of some idea of "beauty," and the clothes may actually conceal, alter, or exaggerate the true woman underneath them. Women become fashion victims: they are trapped in an image of themselves that's not quite true, an image generated by male fantasy and anxiety over female sexuality. As Cher, who plays herself in the movie, says, "Fashion is about women trying to be beautiful, but none of us is going to look like Naomi Campbell … so in a way I think it's kind of sad … I'm a victim as well as a perpetrator." Albertine's pregnancy brazenly confronts and complicates the issue, as framed by the high fashion industry, and will ultimately be taken up in the final défilé.
The second question is, of course, the fundamental issue of paternity. When Jack Lowenthal asks Albertine, "Who's the lucky man?" she blithely answers, "Well, maybe it's you, darling." It sounds tongue-in-cheek, but the charge is a distinct possibility; Jack is a notorious philanderer (he's cheating with his own wife's sister). In fact, Altman creates an atmosphere of uncertain paternity: Jack doesn't even know who his own father is.
Altman's world is peopled with fatherless children and abandoned wives/mothers. The masculine penchant to flee the situation may be the basis of the warfare Altman sees being waged between the sexes not only in this film but in others as well (Images, 3 Women, Short Cuts). We eventually learn that Sergei abandoned Isabella on their wedding night to leave for Moscow.
"We were Communists," he says.
"You were a Communist," responds Isabella, "I was only fourteen."
Communism wasn't what it was cracked up to be, and Sergei ended up living in fear and poverty, making uniforms for Soviet officials. After Communism went out of fashion—Altman cleverly hints at the fad quality of political ideologies—Sergei tries to regain his lost youth. In trying to recapture their youthful passion, Isabella plays a sensuous Salome to Sergei's faltering Faust (in fact, "Salome" and "Faust" are the names of mirror hotel suites in the film). Isabella reveals a body that's scandalously well preserved—she's the spitting image of ageless Eternal Feminine—and does a tantalizing striptease only to discover that her first husband has fallen asleep. (This magnificent scene is ingeniously reproduced from a film Loren and Mastroianni made together over 30 years ago, Yesterday Today and Tomorrow.) She leaves a note on his chest: "Two husbands, two corpses."
Twice abandoned, twice betrayed.
Which brings us back again to the main story line. Simone Lowenthal, like Isabella, was probably abandoned in some way too—that's why her son has no father. Betrayal rears its ugly head again, in the form of another male close to home. Jack, without the approval of his mother, sells his mother's logo ("Lo") to a Texan manufacturer of cowboy boots, Clint Lammeraux (Lyle Lovett).
"You know, you're worse than your father," says Simone.
"Whoever that was," replies Jack.
"You sell and buy everything," Simone responds, "even your own mother."
In spite of Simone's protest, Jack sabotages his mother even further. Behind her back, he arranges a photo session featuring the boots. Imprinted prominently and gaudily with the "Lo" logo, these boots eclipse Simone's spring collection ("These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" plays on the sound track). Simone has been stepped on, not only as an artist but also as a woman (since her art celebrated the female body). She is powerless.
Or is she?
By sending her models down the runway totally nude, Simone is revolting. She is making an explosive statement, not only in defiance of her traitorous son, but also, symbolically, against the entire male order. To pull off such a coup, the solidarity of her models is necessary. Preceding Simone's final showdown, a confluence of new feminine alliances is forged in different corners of the movie but indirectly connected to Simone's plight. For instance, the three fashion editors, who have been fierce competitors throughout the film, eventually join forces against star photographer Milo O'Brannigan (Stephen Rea). Throughout the film, he has humiliated these women by taking photos of them in compromising positions with a spy camera. They gain the upper hand after seizing his negatives, which include, not insignificantly, the treacherous boot shoot. At the same time, Jack's power starts to wane when his estranged wife and her sister, with whom he had been cheating, reunite against him. They call him a rat to his face.
Accompanied by the haunting song "You Are So Pretty the Way You Are," Simone's models take the runway. This defiant défilé doesn't end up defiling the female body with eroticization or desexualization. Rather, Simone presents Mother Nature's getup: the naked female body. This anticlimactic gesture might be considered ridiculous, even mildly pornographic, if it weren't for the presence of Simone's daring centerpiece, her pièce de résistance: Albertine's pregnant body, an impregnable fortress. Formerly banned from the runway, Albertine now rules it as a nude queen-bride, a fabulous figure right out of Botticelli's Primavera. Literally bursting with life. Albertine represents the feminine essence. With her, Simone unveils the primal beauty, power, and mystery of the female body: its ability to bear life—which all the (male-dominated) fashion in the world can't contain or control. Simone liberates the female body from fashion fascism, the mechanism which dictates, regulates, and disseminates images of women. (Altman laces his film with subtle and subliminal references to the Holocaust.)
The effect of Simone's défilé is not shocking. It's sublime.
Simone goes beyond making a feminist statement: the Eternal Feminine (think again of Sophia Loren's vibrant 60-year-old body), the origins of the species, the very beginnings of culture are put on display. As the new announcer of FAD-TV says, "Simone has spoken to women the world over, telling them not what to wear, but how to think about what they want and need from fashion."
(Altman creates an intriguing cross-reference by crosscutting a crossdressers' ball across town. As Simone's women undress, these men dress up. This juxtaposition visualizes metaphorically what Altman feels is really going on in fashion: men are not really making clothes for "real" women but for themselves. Or, to paraphrase Jack, they make clothes for the "ideal" woman they want to be with or the woman they want to be. A gigantic ice sea horse sits in the middle of the transvestites' banquet table. Why a sea horse? It's the only example in nature in which the male carries the fertilized eggs, a fact which underlines the central mystery of gender. In the case of men, no amount of dressing up as a woman makes a woman.)
Ready to Wear is mythic narrative in the guise of satiric spoof. What Altman envisions here is women's revolt, a Trojan Women for post-modern times. Less interested in high fashion than in why humans, who are born naked, cover their bodies in the first place, Altman provides us with a menu of the uses of fashion—in concealing, revealing, or fabricating identity (ethnic, class, occupational, ideological, sexual, gender). And as one designer says, "Fashion is about looking good … it's about getting a great fuck." Therein lies the paradox: we dress up in order to undress (for sex). Joe Flynn (Tim Robbins) and Anne Eisenhower (Julia Roberts) certainly have no use for fashion: they spend the entire time under bed sheets.
In revealing the ironies and absurdities that result from the age-old conflict between culture and nature, Ready to Wear resembles A Wedding more than Nashville. Here, the omnipotence of nature asserts itself in two areas: sex and death. In A Wedding, Altman shows how a socially constructed ritual comes apart at the seams when realities which run counter to the order-defining myths associated with marriage constantly intrude on the party (infidelity, homosexuality, interracial desire, etc.). In Ready to Wear, it's also the body's desires and function which are at odds with the aims of high fashion.
Death frames both films. In A Wedding, it's the controlling family matriarch played by Lillian Gish; in Ready to Wear, it's the head of the Fashion Council. In both cases, death is presented as an embarrassment, an inconvenience, an obscenity, a reality that's not dealt with, ignored. That's the way of human culture. But the show goes on.
In the face of chaotic Eros and dead-end Thanatos, what the hell does fashion amount to anyway? This is a question Altman keeps on posing as he exposes the color-blind phonies, the glamour hounds, and the trend-trotting ignoramuses who dominate that world. Everyone has a fake name, nobody wants to be who they are, nobody knows who they are. Altman's world of fashion is ultimately as drab and unfab as what Cher (of all people) says: "It's not what you put on your body, but who you are inside."
In the last scene of Ready to Wear, Altman comes full circle and creates an ironic picture of the human life cycle. Seven naked newborns playing in the grass fill the screen. The camera pulls back to reveal that the toddlers are being photographed for a fashion ad. The campaign appears to be ripping off Simone Lo's "naked look." The slogan: "Get Real." As the fashion shoot takes place, Oliver de la Fontaine's funeral procession goes by. Isabella does not wear traditional black, but bright red. Perhaps this funeral is a cause for celebration: her liberation.
While Isabella may be making a fashion statement, Altman is not. Less about fab fabric than the tenuous fabric of society, Ready to Wear is an elaborate striptease of the human condition.
This section contains 2,296 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)