Byline: Louise J. Esterhazy

My dear maman used to say that you can keep a good girl down — but never out. So when Robert Altman, the famous director, decided to ban me and my newspaper from all screenings of his new fashion epic, “Pret-a-Porter,” I made it my personal mission to barge in. With bleached blonde wig, tight Alia dress and Jackie O sunglasses, I simply marched into the screening room at TriBeCa Film Center on Monday night. I was so fierce-looking, no one dared approach me, let alone ask for my invitation.
Oh, that they had. I’m sorry to report that “Pret-a-Porter” should be retitled. “Quelle Bombe” would be more like it.
It seems only yesterday that Altman was cutting a swath through an increasingly tremulous fashion world. Since the fall Paris shows, our cozy circle has been holding its collective breath: Which chic little lambs would be sacrificed, torn into celluloid shreds by the pitiless director? In fact, the film’s got all the bite of a garter snake. The director handles the real designers he could snag — Ferré, Gaultier, Montana, Rykiel, Lacroix, Mugler — oh so gently. And he even leaves Danny Aiello’s battery-operated fan on the cutting-room floor.
But don’t think Altman has done our kind any favors with his farce de la mode — would you rather be portrayed as deliciously bitchy or just plain dull? Even for the dullest among us, it’s hard to imagine how a film about fashion could be this boring. Is all this ennui Altman’s ultimate critique, or do I give him too much credit?
The genius of “The Player” is that the director knows the world he satirized — knows it inside out, just as Lagerfeld knows tweed. But Hollywood’s executives on the make are a world away from the denizens of the Carrousel du Louvre. Apparently, Altman just couldn’t make the necessary intellectual transition. Or maybe he just feels superior to it.
You do have to pity him, though. The poor man had to work with relatively few resources; what else can an outsider do when Karl and Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent can’t be bothered to cooperate but elevate Christian well beyond his station? He also coaxed Vivienne Westwood into restaging the show of her unmistakable bustle collection, but attributes it to a male designer who wears too much makeup. Oddly enough, the designer who gets the final word in the film is Nicola Trussardi, who isn’t even French. Someone much cleverer than I will have to figure out why the film ends with naked babies being photographed under a huge Trussardi billboard. It almost looks like an advertisement. The director virtually ignores fashion as a vibrant industry. He has all the players in place — designers, editors, buyers and the world’s hottest photographer — but doesn’t do much with them. Oh, there’s a mildly amusing ménage between the photographer (Stephen Rea) and three fashion editors (Sally Kellerman, Tracey Ullman and Linda Hunt). There’s even a son who sells his mother’s company out from under her. But only television fashion personality Kitty Potter (Kim Basinger) seems to actually do any work. And the collections are presented as little more than an opportunity for Aiello to play dress-up and Tim Robbins to make love with the perfect, inebriated stranger (Julia Roberts).
Frankly, I was hoping for some real dirt, not to mention a little glamour (and I don’t mean Sophia Loren in a garter belt). But “Pret-a-Porter” offers nothing more inside than runway footage, and Elsa Klensch (who does a good job playing herself), has been doing that for years. Altman also substitutes a running gag about stepping in dog droppings for a real plot. Even Marcello Mastroianni, whom I think is the chat’s meow, couldn’t keep me — and other members of the audience — from dozing off.
Altman’s best hope for an attentive audience may be teenage boys, lured by the promise of nude models on the runway. But if they turn out, hormones in full throttle, expecting to feast on supermodel breasts and buns, the lads will also go home hungry. The most famous model on that runway is Eve, known much less for the curves of her torso than for the arc of her bald, tattooed head. If only Altman could have snared Claudia and Cindy for the scene, he would have been boffo at the box office, as Variety always says. Instead I’m afraid Bobby’s laid an oeuf.

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