Cinema in quarantine: Prêt-à-Porter

Paulo Monteiro (Reviews Journal)


Film Commentary on Robert Altman's High Fashion

"In the world really inverted, truth is a moment of what is false” (Guy Debord).

The film about Parisian high fashion belongs to the best Altman,[1] the one that we learn to recognize and admire, with its varied and intersecting stories, capable of tracing a whole suggestive social panel, like Short Cuts (Life Scenes), from 1993, and its social universe of the middle classes, and from The Wedding (Wedding), from 1978, and its universe of the wealthy classes, — compositions performed, by the way, with rare balance, without giving in to the easy appeals of the extremes, without overgeneralizing, and falling into crude sociologism, nor individualizing too much, diving in that banal existentialism, which makes most of the so-called serious cinema of our days so unhappy.

We repeat, this Altman of ours, a sort of American Fellini, does not slip into these extremes, who, when he hits the baton, achieves it in great style, making individuals and social groups luminously parade on the canvases, without owing anything to one another, men having much of their groupings but not being reduced to them, and the sociological abstraction of classes enlivened and enriched by human matter, composed of those particles so recognizable in their precarious singularity.

Ready-to-Wear, from 1994, is one of those films. Like other Altmanian frescoes (sorry for sacrilege), laughter dominates in this painting, even if yellow or forced at times, but, unlike them, it is not exactly a comedy or satire. Or rather, it's comedy, it's satire, but it tends to be — a farce, and this generic distinction, rather than a classificatory taste, will allow us to understand in due time the most complex movement of the allegory that mobilizes the film. Let's not anticipate.

Various farcical elements punctuate here and there, such as dog poop, let's say, the amusing film, and if you avoid watering your neighbors with urine, as medieval farces used to do, or if you avoid the famous cane blows, which even today disappoint audiences from eight to eighty, there is no lack of other rude traits to invade the scene.

Thus, the stops, modernized on the catwalks; identity changes; eschatology (Paris sucks); the comedy of manners; the satire of contemporary professional types, such as the Stylist, the TV Reporter, the Police Inspector, the Fashion Photographer, if we do not want to see in the latter even the satire of moral characters, the Pedantic, or even national ones, the Irishman; not to mention the malice, the profanity, the puns, the use of cunning and different tricks by the characters, all traits that create that unmistakable climate of “confusion”, of “mixture”, conducive to the appearance of surprises, unforeseen events, quid pro quos. , finally, and which already set the tone, for example, of a 1969 film, with a symptomatic title — MASH.

It is not by chance that they echo this modern vaudeville military about the Korean War certain cruder scenes of the Ready-to-Wear, such as the choking death of the fashion world's powerful boss, on the eve of the launch of the collections, or the coroner, next to the body and bathed in blood, talking and having a leisurely snack, with the same haughtiness and indifference of the equally bloodthirsty sunset -sun in the foreground.

As if these indications were not enough, a typical feature of farce constitutes the organizing principle of the work — the general disguise. And, with greater or lesser unfolding, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively, we will see that it shapes the decisive aspects of the film.

The farce is in the opening credits, written in Russian, including the name of the American director; the farce is in the characters, — in the mistress disguised as a “widow” of the powerful Olivier de La Fontaine, who receives the condolences of all her friends, instead of the rightful widow; in the obscure fashion director of a Chicago store, whose wife spends the film, we later learn, buying him women's clothing for a cross-dressing event; in the Italian husband, who returns from Russia to see his wife, then married to Olivier, but, accused of the murder, lives in drag, that is, in the clothes of one and the other, the sports journalist, the conservative “transvestite” and, finally, the Irish photographer; in the Texan boot manufacturer, which buys the brand from Simone Lo, as he had already secretly bought the pass from the “90s photographer”, apparently redneck and vulgar, as befits a Texas boatman, but a hell of a rogue, a man of the small jokes and big business (pharmacy, livestock, cotton, etc., as his guide declines in the new and prosperous investment); in “Paristroika”, the three fashion editors, identical enemies, who, in order to maintain their “identity”, who knows? require changing absolutely equal rooms, twinned; in the two model, non-model sisters, who are so similar that they even share the husband of one of them, the son of Simone Lo, and so on.

The farce is in the action, in the quid pro quos armed but already deactivated, like the suspected murder of the powerful boss, when we all know that the death was accidental; in this accelerated turnaround of positions and situations, like the love and commercial disputes that make up the plot, such as the fierce war for hiring the photographer blasé that moves the “Paristroika”, — turnaround that is sometimes spectacular, as in the sudden transformation of a breed dog exhibitor, as soon as he comes down from the catwalk, into a police inspector, or as in the case of publicly opposing stylists, but who in reality are lovers, as well as, symmetrically, their “spouses”… The farce can even walk here naked, as in the meeting of two journalists, one sports and the other from the area, who, having lost their bags and forced to live in the same room for a week, spend the days, justifiably, sometimes without clothes, sometimes in a bathrobe...

Light and delicious, the farce does not clash with the more or less diffuse and common feeling about the planet fashion and its quarrels, ambitions, meanness, hypocrisies, futilities, its frivolity, in short. But the film would really be silly, as the stressed reporter explodes at the end, and would not deserve a minute of reflection, if it boiled down to just that, the network of intrigues in the world of high fashion.[2] That men are no good, or that they are self-serving, or that they are selfish, etc., etc., for whatever reason, historical, psychological, biological, moral, religious, mystical, does not surprise anyone, I hope, since the moralists French. The interesting thing is that things start to get complicated when, little by little, a positive character emerges, out of tune from this world of farce, general travesty.

Simone Lo, without being exclusively the only serious character in this universe, nevertheless deserves different treatment, in a dramatic register; her print brings an aura of contained pain, of suffered dignity, let's say, that the story frankly does not justify, since we know that it is not due to the death of the lover, whom she did not love. Her Calvary derives, we feel, from something that hangs in the air and that we only come to understand as the plot unfolds. In short, she is serious, because serious is her art, and serious is the threat to her. Lo represents the artist of this world, heroically trying to resist the advance of Capital. She is an upstanding artist, therefore, betrayed by her cafajeste son, who sells, in her absence, her handles for the Texan industrialist, he prefers to renounce his art rather than betray it, thus promoting — and thus ending a 20-year career — the nude parade.

Any resemblance to Altman's condition is not coincidental. Stylist, filmmaker, identity imposes itself, because both artists suffer from the embarrassment of their art, whether in the fashion industry or in the cultural industry. This is the first step of the allegory, and a long one, whose scope and aspiration to universality are shown in the opening scenes. Let's observe the traveling metonymic of the opening, which connects Moscow and Paris; the dialogue at the airport between Sergio and Olivier, through which we learn that, if there is a shortage of ham in Russia, the same is not true of Christian Dior ties, although outdated, forgotten or already ridiculed in the West, which Sergio had bought in Moscow for identify the two men, and let us observe, above all, the role of modern (in)differentiation that fashion plays in this world unified by the media. Thus, the difference between a Russian (Orientalized) and a French or Italian (Occidentalized) does not go beyond a headdress. Here's how, at the airport, on the way, Serguei transforms into Sergio, changing only his Russian fur cap for a French beret.

But as the world of fashion is not exclusively the world of fashion in this intentional allegory, as the sacrifice of Simone Lo, the artist stylist, proves, the film thematizes, then, in truth, the opposition between art and industry, or the painful situation of the authentic artist at the height of the cultural industry. This first step of the allegory thus constitutes its first, positive movement.

Without demanding or insinuating any duty of authorial coherence, which would be a contradiction in terms, we can note that this allegorical intention is not entirely alien to Altman's filmography, at least that available in the best stores in the field. So, in Streamers (The Useless Army), from 1983, one of the accurate films about the Vietnam War, even though it is not exactly an allegory, the intention to allegorize is visible, to point out that it is other the war, that war is internecine, that American society is at war, in racial, sexual, class wars.

Well, like the real war, the real art also takes place elsewhere, although threatened and sinisterly threatened with extinction by the Texan boatmen, and by Hollywood producers (boatmen?) But if the film was reduced to just that, it would be better , no doubt, that the nonsense of human hypocrisy and pettiness, but still it would not go very far. It would deserve a few minutes of meditation, certainly disenchanted, another bit of nostalgia, and we would soon finish with that, reciting any Funeral Eulogy of the Artist at the foot of the canvas. It happens, however, that cross-dressing does not reside only in the staging, in the action or in the characters of the film and their relationships. It defiles you as a whole. the cross-dressing é the film.

In a word, the farce is above all in the representation itself, whose narration, led by the busy reporter, always concerned with extracting from the “fashion thinkers” their conception of beauty and style, gives the measure of its ambiguity. More precisely, we are facing a fiction that sometimes simulates a report, sometimes actually reports; before a fiction that sometimes represents a documentary, sometimes is a documentary in fact. No shocks, no sudden transitions, almost no change of register, the representation sometimes takes on one outfit, sometimes another... naturally.

The various, truly recurrent moments of recording fashion shows, interviews with famous stylists, Thierry Mugler, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Gianfranco Ferré, Christian Lacroix, Sonia Rykiel, etc., parties, such as the Haute Bijou Bulgari, providing meetings between the world of haute couture, the world of media and the world of star system, of systematic coexistence between fashion characters, media characters and film characters, characters who sometimes represent themselves, sometimes represent their role in the film, sometimes represent their social role, — these slips, in short, would introduce, in principle, a major formal problem, due to the permanent instability, the excessive promiscuity of the levels of representation, a formal problem of difficult aesthetic resolution, if not impossible, within the framework of a naturalistic representation, for example.

Such documentary moments, however, numerous and noisy, do not call into question, curiously, the status of the film. Why? Simply because of the naturalness with which all these worlds, fashion, media, cinema, come together, forming a spectacular complex of rare beauty, and the most instigating.

And it is from this reciprocal contamination, from this astonishing naturalness, but which does not surprise us, with which the register changes almost imperceptibly, that the second movement of the allegory, the negative movement, will be born. For what does the naturalness of this unstable and ambiguous representation indicate? Even before that, how to represent — consequently — the connaturality of the three worlds, fashion, media, cinema?

This is how the aesthetic option for farce legitimizes the naturalness of the cross-dressing, implying a kind of imposition of the object, an option, or intelligent submission, which encloses a far-reaching artistic success, capable of guaranteeing the quality and permanence of the film. World of affectation, par excellence, world of spectacle, par excellence, world of representation, par excellence, the representation of representation could only be aesthetically suited to the guise of farce, since, by nature, the genre despises the radical break between reality and reality. representation, rather, he knows how to incorporate them into his movement.

The non-option for authentic documentary or realistic fiction, moreover, the impossibility, for the consistent artist, of choosing, the therefore natural promiscuity with which one passes from one to the other, with which fiction is disguised as a documentary, and vice versa. versa, insinuates that, in the realm of pure spectacle, there is nothing more to document, nor to represent. Reality is spectacular, and the spectacle is the only reality.

Thus, even fiction, when it appears, it does so in the degraded state of a I Girasoli of Russia (The Sunflowers of Russia), from 1970, or even from a Yesterday Today Tomorrow (Yesterday, today and Tomorrow), from 1963, films that, despite possible aesthetic differences between them, are already far from the original neorealism. It goes without saying that, in the comic they star in, and in the ever-present field of farce, Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren, more than characters, interpret themselves, actors, stars, idols, myths, in short, of the History of Cinema (in ontological capitalization, obligatorily).

Not that spectacularization is only part of supposedly spectacular nature media, common to the performing arts; the spectacularization reaches the supposedly extra-spectacular reality. That's when the film takes another step forward, and away from consequences. Thus, the final sequences themselves belie the sketches of positivity that Simone Lo's affirmative gesture and her haughty resignation rehearse, with the parade of nudes.[3]

As if the resounding success of the event were not enough, which was applauded by the public and aligned continuously with the History of Fashion by the new reporter on duty, completely interverting the signal of the critical act, the last scene leaves no doubt: between nascent life, with naked babies waiting for the excool of the 90s”, lying in diapers, as much as his unknown colleague in misfortune, Sergio, homeless, slumped on the bench, and ironically wearing the black clothes of the fallen photographer, which so distinguished him, but which then became a sign of mourning, able to let him take a ride at the end of the funeral parade... — between life, in short, and death passing in the background, at the big boss's funeral, the appeal of reality is given, but by advertising message, via outdoor from Trussardi, publicizing its new “attitude”: get real! You get real, yes... but in the reality of the show.

If this contamination is a fact, if the equivalence, to speak obsoletely, between the planes of representation and what is represented is a fact, masterfully diluting them, if the spectacle as a historical cipher of the commodity form, therefore, is the only real and aesthetic fact that he can keep record the film, something that redeems it in its entirety, guaranteeing it, as far as possible, cinematographic immortality, the objective irony forces reflection. The ironic movement of the allegory imposes itself, and the identity is rebuilt but in the opposite direction, negatively. If the stylist shares the same hardships as the artist in the cultural industry, it is now the filmmaker who enjoys the prestige of a stylist. With its fame, and its recognition by Hollywood, it is not then created the handles Altman, and don't your films threaten to become a catwalk illuminated by the parade of stars and stars?

as proof Ready-to-Wear in an exemplary way, the most effective criticism, whether of the cultural industry or, more ambitiously, of the spectacular reality, of which it is an emblem, is not necessarily direct, nor necessarily intentional, as the first, positive movement of the allegory demonstrates, nor deliberately parodic. just remember The Player (The player), from 1992, an allegedly critical film, but in fact merely ingenious, much to the taste of the Academy, which loves such profitable innovations.

We encounter effective criticism against the grain, in the second movement of the allegory, negative, and in the course of which the transformation of the filmmaker into a stylist, we must emphasize, has nothing to do with personal weakness or opportunism, or anything of that kind, but with the black hole force, irresistible, that exerts the spectacular reality, engulfing everything and everyone.

More than intention, therefore, effective criticism is the work of form, objective, like reality, and objective like irony, which reality sometimes preaches to us spectacularly.

We could not determine with certainty, objectively, on screen, whether Altman was self-mocking or not, whether he was aware of this illuminating interversion, of his conversion, possible and dangerous, into a top stylist in the cultural industry. If only he had appeared briefly on the catwalk, at a glance, just once, in a Hitchcockian way… We don't think so.[4] In any case, consciously or not, ironically or not, the film is tremendously instructive, like all good allegories.

*Airton Paschoa is a writer, author, among other books, of the life of penguins (Nankin, 2014).



USA, 1994, 132 minutes

Directed by: Robert Altman

Cast: Julia Roberts, Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren, Jean Pierre Cassell


[1] Badly published in the magazine cinemas, No. 14, Nov/Dec/1998. The “revision” turned it into a catwalk of horrors…

[2] The reception of the film by the main press organizations in the Rio-São Paulo axis generally remained in line with this plan. Curious that he was praised or mocked for the same reasons, either for the devastating satire of the fashion circus, or for the superficiality of that satire. The only more substantive criticism that touched, although it did not elaborate, quite understandably, on the decisive point in our view of the film, the ambiguous status of its representation, was unfortunately not signed (“Court and culture”, Veja, 19/4/95).

[3] Simone Lo's gesture of resignation is negative, though, due to the air of moral victory of Art over Industry, if positive, inserted that it is, let us remember, in the first movement of the allegory.

[4] It may be objected that cinema appears in the film, and it is a fact. It appears in the reporter's quotes, it appears as a joke in that horror film described by Belafonte (Reagan's re-election, Nancy Reagan forming a parallel government, Oliver North as Secretary of Health and Human Resources and Sidney Poitier as president of American Express) and that indirectly it makes even the beautiful Isabella, always so self-possessed, faint with fright; appears especially in the citation of those versions of the broth De Sica, and the fact that it already appears in diluted versions of neorealism could represent an indication of awareness, at least, of the usurping voracity of the cultural industry, thematized still, visibly, in the stylist's Che Guevara shirt underground… I agree. But I still have doubts whether this awareness of the spectacle, which does not necessarily imply the awareness that we are part of it, and even less awareness that we are sometimes part of it in a condition that we mostly deplore in others, — does not seem to me, in short, that the consciousness of the spectacle, manifested in this reflexive consciousness of cinema, an expression of modernity, as they say, and expressed in the multiplicity of quotes, would be confused with self-irony. We believe not.

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