“I’d say it’s uh, very…Pret-a-Porter.”
Of the two major releases bringing movie theaters back to thriving life at the moment, it’s Cruella that’s proved to be a rarity. Not only was it one of the few titles NOT to have its release date affected by the pandemic, but the Disney production has served an example of what the future for movies may look like thanks to it’s simultaneous release on both the big screen and the studio’s premier streaming service. The opening weekend numbers are promising showing that the movie’s release strategy can work and definitely suggests a future where both viewing experiences can surely coexist.
As the title suggests, Cruella offers up an alternate version of the classic Disney character (here played by Emma Stone) and traces her beginnings as an orphaned girl who grows up and makes a splash in the London fashion scene of the 1970s, much to the chagrin of The Baroness (Emma Thompson), the reigning designer Queen. While it isn’t the first, Cruella’s use of fashion as a storytelling theme is both entertaining and surprisingly telling, making a true standout of 2021. In fact, the last time fashion was used as a core motif this provocatively, it came from the brainchild of none other than Robert Altman, whose 1994 all-star comedy Ready-to-Wear, provided an intoxicating inside look at the fashion world that remains unforgettable.
It’s the annual springtime Pret-a-Porter (Ready-to-Wear) collections and everybody who is anybody in the fashion world has gathered in Paris to catch the latest collections from the industry’s top designers. Even for an Altman film, the cast is enormous. There’s the hotel-stranded Julia Roberts and Tim Robbins, Kim Basinger as fashion TV reporter, Rupert Everett as the son of a famed designer (Anouk Aimee), Marcello Mastroianni as a mysterious man with ties to the wife (Sophia Loren) of a fashion mogul (Jean Pierre Cassell), a colorblind merchandiser (Lauren Bacall) and a pair of rival designers (Forest Whitaker and Richard E. Grant) who are secretly having an affair and even Lyle Lovett as a Texan boot maker trying to get into the scene. Throughout the week, everyone’s paths will cross during one of the biggest fashion events of the year.
Whether it was the world of the army, the English aristocracy or the movie industry, each of Altman’s films were cinematic essays; insightful takes on a world most people know only from the outside, if they know it exists at all. As a filmmaker, Altman spent his career endlessly fascinated by those worlds and the stories within them. Ready-to-Wear is such a natural fit for Altman because of this. The world of fashion is a landscape which almost everyone is either fascinated by or at least has something of an opinion about. With the help of many key designers of the day, including Christian Lacroix, Sonia Rykiel and Thierry Mugler, Altman does what he does best and captures the essence of the people who exist in that world. Their sensibilities, alliances, unorthodox language; all of it is ripe for exploration. Many of the aforementioned designers hold actual shows of their own collections (Altman actually filmed the movie during the spring 1994 Pret-a-Porter week), most are interviewed by Basinger‘s character and some even briefly work their way into the plot. Even though the narrative is paused on occasion in order to observe a fashion show, no one really minds. The clothes and the presentation of them are bits of cinema unto themselves and Altman’s curiosity at this wonderland he’s capturing is felt in every one of these sequences, while his investment in the world as a whole is felt all the way through.
But this is a Robert Altman film after all; which means a narrative featuring a sprawling collection of characters is necessary. Admittedly, some of the various plots and subplots land better than others. Certain ones, such as Roberts and Robbins as strangers forced to share a hotel room and Teri Garr hitting the shops throughout the city for her transvestite husband (Danny Aiello) are interesting, but can’t help but come across as the weak links. Meanwhile, Mastroianni and Loren easily recreate the magic they had during their heyday in 60s Italian cinema throughout their scenes, Aimee is radiant as the grieving designer trying to hold onto her label and finally, Grant and Whitaker are hilarious as two rival designers trying to cover up their affair. All of it results in some great comedy sequences, such as the lunatic one which sees Tracey Ullman and Linda Hunt complaining to their assistants that they’re in each other’s suites and demand to be switched immediately, despite the fact that the two rooms are mirror images of one another. The extended scene borders on farce and works in showcasing the lunacy of that world, hilariously ending with both ladies being locked out of their suites. The action in Ready-to-Wear is matched by its dialogue, which is often riotous. One highlight in particular sees an outraged Ullman lashing out at Stephen Rey’s character for taking pictures of her in the bedroom. “I wondered what that clicking sound was! You must be gay if you want me in that position anyway,” she screams. “You Irish, you’re f***ing stupid and you wouldn’t know what to do with your f***ing country if we gave it back to you,” she yells as she hurriedly runs out the door.
Whether or not their storyline works, the cast of Ready-to-Wear is never anything less than entertaining. Everyone was clearly excited to work with Altman and gave their all to whatever was asked of them. Of the vast amount of names, it’s Everett, Aimee, Loren, Mastroianni, Grant, Bacall and Ullman who are all in the most top form. Yet it’s Basinger who not only gets the most laughs, but who also seems to grow more and more watchable in the film with every scene she’s in, with her character plunging deeper and deeper into the fashion madness until her hilarious final scene.
Ready-to-Wear did not have a lot of things going for it, especially when it came to Altman’s health, which had been a problem throughout the shoot. Although both Loren and the film earned Golden Globe nominations, the movie was not a hit, critically or commercially. Some chalked this up to Ready-to-Wear being a decidedly lesser follow-up to the double punch of Altman’s The Player and Short Cuts, both of which became instant classics. To make matters worse, the fashion industry was largely displeased with the film and the director’s take on their world, with both Karl Lagerfeld and Andre Leon Talley even lambasting Altman on an episode of Charlie Rose. Watching the film today with its potent comedy beats, game ensemble and real-life fashion elements, there’s no denying that Altman manages to blend the two sides in a highly enjoyable and somewhat fascinating way. It’s far from a perfect film in a career which enjoyed a vast catalog of titles that contained masterpieces, fiascos and everything in between. It’s Basinger’s character who sums it up best in her first scene and ends up perfectly describing not so much Ready-to-Wear, but Altman’s cinematic eye as a whole when she introduces the start of the Pret-a-Porter collections by saying: “There will great lapses in taste, but there will also be dazzling moments of rare beauty.”