Robert Altman’s follow-up to the surprisingly potent (and far superior) Short Cuts, Prêt-à-Porter (Ready to Wear), applies the director’s casual, large-ensemble aesthetic to the colorful backdrop of Paris Fashion Week. Altman’s typically nonjudgmental tone is somewhat absent here as characters frequently devolve into the kind of self-parody you’d expect in a Christopher Guest mockumentary, but they’re more or less charming all the same. Prêt-à-Porter is a loose, amused take on the fashion industry that tries to succeed less on having something to say and more on having someone interesting say it.
In true Altman form, the cast is stacked: Sophia Loren, Kim Basinger, Forrest Whitaker, Rupert Everett, Julia Roberts, Lauren Bacall, Tim Robbins, Lyle Lovett, Tracey Ullman, Cher, Naomi Campbell, Teri Garr, and Harry Belafonte all participate in some capacity. By filming during Paris Fashion Week, Altman achieves an even larger ensemble cast of familiar faces than usual, which unfortunately may be the film’s greatest accomplishment. I was drawn to Prêt-à-Porter when I read that even Björk had a brief cameo as a runway model. “Brief” is even a generous word for it, as she merely passes across the screen in her Mother Nature Incarnate mode, the (real life) fashion line she’s modeling having something to do with snow & wilderness. The themes of different fashion lines are a consistent source of amusement for the film as they each intensely focus on a singular, seemingly empty idea: boots, subway cars, Scotland, etc. An American news reporter with a Southern accent works as an audience surrogate as she politely navigates the vapidity of each runway show. One campaign simply marketing nudity, the complete absence of fashion, finally prompts her “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” Network moment & she storms off.
Prêt-à-Porter occupies a strange space between light ribbing and outright mockery. Parts of it feel like Altman’s fashion world version of Guest’s Best in Show, but it never completely tips in that direction. Other parts feel like an undercooked version of the everything-is-connected story Altman had told many times before in much better films. A couple hours loafing along with this impressive assortment of celebrities is not a particularly bad way to spend your time, especially if you have severe 90s nostalgia or an intense interest in the fashion industry, but it could’ve been a much better film if it pushed itself a little harder in any specific direction.
Prêt-à-Porter is currently streaming on Netflix.