(from The Watermark 01/17/95)
Ready To Wear (Pret-a-Porter), the latest film from acclaimed director Robert Altman, takes aim at the world of modeling and fashion in the unique satirical Altman style of storytelling. With a subject matter so rich with possibilities for criticism and commentary, Altman (who brought us The Player and Short Cuts) surprisingly misses the mark more often than not, especially with the parts of the film that seem to be the strongest. Ultimately, the film is an occasionally comic glimpse into the world of fashion with a lot of filler that adds color but no substance.
Pret-a-Porter (French for ?ready to wear?) is the name of the international fashion convention being held in Paris that is the backdrop for Altman?s stories: a mysterious foreigner (Marcello Mastroianni) comes to Paris to reclaim his long lost wife (Sophia Loren) and is suspected of murdering her current husband (Jean-Pierre Cassel); an unlikely romance blossoms between two American reporters (Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts) who are forced to share a hotel room; three fashion magazine editors (Tracey Ullman, Linda Hunt, and Sally Kellerman) compete to recruit a top fashion photographer (Stephen Rhea); two pairs of fashion designer spouses are all having extra-marital affairs with each other, unaware that they are partner-swapping; the girlfriend of a fashion show patron (Teri Garr, Danny Aiello) misses the events to go on a wild shopping spree for clothes for him to wear to a cross-dressers? convention; a fluff-TV reporter (Kim Basinger) tries to get all the hot stories at the convention while making a nuisance of herself.
Altman gives the film a wonderful international flavor by keeping the dialogue multilingual and providing subtitles for the parts in Russian, French, and Italian. The style of the film is very documentary with hand-held cameras and partially improvised performances to give the effect of ?real? people behind-the-scenes. At times, Pret-A-Porter becomes an actual documentary with celebrities playing themselves, and being ?interviewed? by Basinger, while we see montages of the different fashion shows. The music used during the actual runway segments is well chosen, including the works of Bjork, The New Power Generation, and The Cranberries.
The real failure of Pret-a-Porter is that it never quite integrates all of the stories, nor does it validate all of its subplots. The relationship between Robbins and Roberts does nothing to enhance the movie; they are neither interesting nor likable characters, and their presence borders on the non-sequitur. Where Altman does create plots that are well-constructed, such as Rhea?s trickery against the three editors, and Aiello?s cross-dressing, the film ends before any resolutions take place, leaving its best parts illogically abandoned.
Altman saves his ?big? statement on the fashion industry for the film?s end when Cassel?s mistress finds herself unable to put her work on the runway after her son has sold out their financial interests to a Texan boot manufacturer (Lyle Lovett). The message is dead-on, but is weakened by the fact that it emerges from one of the smallest and least developed subplots in the film. In actuality, the only fully rounded story presented is that of Mastroianni and Loren, which includes a charming reenactment of their famous bedroom scene from Divorce, Italian Style - with a twist.
As with his other works, Altman?s comic bite is present and frequently hilarious, such as one designer exclaiming that he can?t use a pregnant model because his bustles are worn on the back, and Basinger mispronouncing ?Paris? during her interview segments as her eyes are glued to the cue cards somebody else has written for her. Yet at other times jokes are tasteless and overdone, such as an attempted running gag of people stepping in dog 'merde', and Roberts? character needing to be drunk to have sex with Robbins. For the amount of laughs and substance it contains, the two-and-a-half hour Pret-a-Porter is too lengthy for its own good, and it cannot be argued that Altman didn?t have the screen time necessary to properly express himself. All-in-all, Pret-a-Porter is as shallow as the industry it portrays.