REVIEW: Prêt-à-Porter [Ready to Wear] [1994]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 133 minutes | Release Date: December 25th, 1994 (USA)
Studio: Miramax
Director(s): Robert Altman
Writer(s): Robert Altman & Barbara Shulgasser

“Taking advantage of others’ insecurities”

I didn’t love The Player as much as I thought I would. Sometimes Robert Altman utilizes too many characters within a story that cannot sustain them as perfectly as we’d hope. It often works best in one-locale work like A Wedding and Gosford Park where the satirized theme is cohesive and everyone interacts with everyone else. The reason his Hollywood roast did succeed enough for me to enjoy, however, is that it had a lead. We followed Griffin Mill around the studio lot as the world around him tightened. This doesn’t happen in Prêt-à-Porter [Ready to Wear]. The film is ostensibly a fashion world The Player, but there’s never one focus to rally around. Instead it’s mere chaos, a funny joke here and there with little intrigue.

We’re led to believe there will be a main thrust as the film begins with Sergio (Marcello Mastroianni) hatching a plan in Russia while buying two identical ties. (There’s a fun touch of international flavor by starting the credits in Cyrillic before shifting to French and then English.) We don’t know who he is but we can’t help paying attention and making the connection when Parisian Olivier de la Fontaine (Jean-Pierre Cassel) is handed a package with one of those ties. This will seemingly be our center point for everything else to expand from whether Olivier’s wife Isabella (Sophia Loren) participating in a dog show with Inspector Tantpis (Jean Rochefort) or the myriad characters at Charles de Gaulle airport where Olivier goes to meet his secretive pen pal.

They have all arrived in Paris for Fashion Week as designers from Sonia Rykiel to Jean-Paul Gaultier (playing themselves) ready their latest lines of clothes. We meet fashion magazine moguls Nina Scant (Tracey Ullman as Vogue‘s editor), Regina Krumm (Linda Hunt as Elle‘s editor), and Sissy Wanamaker (Sally Kellerman as Harper’s Bazaar‘s editor). There’s the hot photographer they each hope to sign in Milo O’Brannigan (Stephen Rea), crassly ignorant American TV journalist Kitty Potter (Kim Basinger) seeking to interview everyone with cohort Sophie Choiset (Chiara Mastroianni) closely in tow, Houston reporter Anne Eisenhower (Julia Roberts), a random couple in Major (Danny Aiello) and Louise Hamilton (Teri Garr), and cowboy boot designer Clint Lammeraux (Lyle Lovett) with his handler Slim Chrysler (Lauren Bacall). And those are just the newcomers.

We also have vocally competitive designers Cort Romney (Richard E. Grant) and Cy Bianco (Forest Whitaker); fashion elite maven Simone Lowenthal doubling as Olivier’s mistress (Anouk Aimée); her son the philandering Jack (Rupert Everett); New York Times journalist Fiona Ulrich (Lili Taylor); and American sports reporter Joe Flynn (Tim Robbins) hoping to return home before getting the call that he must stay and cover a murder. They’re already in Paris doing their own thing as the circus comes to town. Some will cross paths, many will not. Some won’t even leave their hotel rooms as drunken flings of casual sex arise due to lost luggage and close quarters. Misogyny abounds, backstabbing deals are made, and all the while Sergio skulks about stealing clothes to hide from the police.

Nobody earns more screen time than anyone else so we can never devote our energy to one plot thread finding closure. Should we be wondering about Sergio’s motivations? Not really as he supplies little but comic relief of the physical and random sort. Should we be intently interested in Simone’s unveiling? No. Until a reveal much later I didn’t think twice about her even participating in the fashion show as a designer with her own line. How about O’Brannigan and the trio of vultures looking to pick his bones no matter the compromising positions it puts them in? That string may bore the most in its repetitive crudeness. And don’t get me started on the love affairs circling Romney and Bianco’s over-the-top machinations blowing things well beyond proportions.

The behind the scenes actions are written excruciatingly broad by Altman and Barbara Shulgasser to the point where my intrigue settled on the outliers far removed from the chaos. I invested in the dynamic between Roberts and Robbins hoping for a payoff that went beyond a natural winding down of emotion. I began to get more and more curious about Aiello popping up everywhere rubbing elbows with the elite despite no one quite knowing who he was and Garr simply showing up at stores with her credit card for fifteen-second long, perplexing vignettes before discovering their inclusion was for a punch line that hardly satisfies the time spent deciphering their purpose. Was my ignorance towards the fashion world hindering my enjoyment as all subtlety escaped me? Probably.

I’m sure people unversed in studio Hollywood felt the same overwhelming sense of displacement with The Player as I did here. To me all I saw were clichéd stereotypes because that’s all I see when looking at the real thing. But I can’t necessarily blame Altman for this. It’s not his responsibility to make his point generic so outsiders like me understand. If anything we should be looking at the topics he chose to skewer throughout his career and recognize the similarities they possess in hubris, idiocy, and ego. I just wonder if because The Player has a focus, its insider view doesn’t alienate as much as Prêt-à-Porter. This one almost demands we know what could happen to acknowledge what is happening. So many reveals arrive without fanfare.

Maybe if I knew the world I could anticipate where Altman was going with the drama surrounding Simone despite her often being nowhere to be found. Instead the actions of her son and a handful of others went unnoticed until the truth came out. I would surely appreciate the intricacies more by watching a second time fully cognizant of what to expect, but I didn’t enjoy myself quite enough to do so. I looked at my watch at one point anticipating the film was close to ending only to see I was barely halfway through. The journey was admittedly fun at times but too often laborious too. Even though Roberts/Robbins and Aiello/Garr piqued my interest most, you lose nothing by removing them. That level of excess is tiring.

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