Making the Old New Again: Robert Altman's Pret-a-Porter

By June Werrett

June Werrett has recently (February this year) completed a PhD "Satire and Cinema: Tensions and Tendencies in the films of Robert Altman and Blake Edwards" at La Trobe University, Melbourne Australia.

"The thing about it- the reason I'm nervous about it - is that this is new ground. This is new territory for this art, not greatly new, but slightly new." - Robert Altman speaking to Brian D. Leitch about the nude catwalk scene in Pret-a-Porter. (1)

Robert Altman experiments with something new and a little different in all of his films. The result is a canon that is uneven and always surprising. The films range from the intense minimalist works of having few actors, such as Images (1972), Streamers (1983), Fool For Love (1985), to the scrambling multi-cast films such as Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976), Nashville (1975), The Player (1992). Pret-a Porter (Ready-to-Wear 1994) is proudly in the vein of the latter: the seemingly messy, the large canvas. This film was received harshly by both film critics and the fashion industry and it continues to be seen as a lowpoint in Altman's career. (2) Rather than divide Altman's work into best and worst films, I consider it more deserving to view the films in their various styles and modes of critique. Pret-a-Porter incorporates the scatological tradition of the ancient philosopher, Diogenes, and presents as a fine example of the satiric grotesque as it manifests in the modern-day cinema.

The world of Pret-a-Porter is fast, crowded and disorderly. It begins in the circular shape of a modern global whirl as the camera spins from Moscow to Paris. The film has a 'rough' feel to it in that much of the dialogue is spontaneous and the actual pret-a-porter fashion shows were filmed on location: these shows were inserted later. Pret-a-Porter is mainly a televised account of the Paris fashion-week show hosted by a fictional presenter, Kitty Potter (Kim Basinger). Interconnected with the show are a myriad of subplots: one concerns the suspected murder of the head of the French Fashion Council, Olivier de la Fontaine (Jean-Pierre Cassel). Another subplot concerns the murder suspect, Sergei (Marcello Mastroianni), a Russian tailor who attempts to reunite with his childhood lover, Isabella de la Fontaine (Sophia Loren). Another concerns Olivier de la Fontaine's lover, Simone Lowenthal (Anouk Aimee) whose son sells her fashion label to a Texan boot manufacturer. Others include three fashion magazine editors who vie for super photographer, Milo O'Brannagan (Stephen Rea), and two journalists, Anne Eisenhower (Julia Roberts) and Joe Flynn (Tim Robbins) who share a steamy love affair in a hotel room after losing their luggage.

In Pret-a-Porter the grotesque resurfaces in a contemporary environment of media-hype: a world of mixed response and confusion. Grotesque art lacks solidity and permanency; it is associated with decoration, fashion and style and it stems from the old coming to the surface, adapting and mingling with the new. The word "grotesque" originates as a descriptive term for the fanciful mural decorations that were found in the Roman buildings such as the Domus Aurea of Nero excavated c. 1500. These decorations were of mixed human and animal form and of floral ornament; they were adapted to contemporary schemes and became fashionable throughout Europe. (3) Pret-a-Porter captures this grotesque atmosphere of the wondrous, the underground and the strangely ornate. In this sense it has a certain shock value for its viewer: a tendency to make one aware that they are in the act of looking.

As with the 'Freaks' in Diane Arbus' photographs, the characters in Pret-a-Porter turn the mirror inward and create a sense of physical disorientation. The grotesque is regarded as "primarily the expression of our failure to orient ourselves in the physical universe". (4) Pret-a-Porter confuses the boundaries between freak and ideal, inside and outside and it offers a social critique of the mediated world through the means of comic and ridicule: one that seems to both mimic and send-up the grotesque character make-up and hype found in the Jerry Springer show. All characters in Pret-a-Porter are 'freaks' of some kind and all are part of the circus-like side-show. There is the 'dwarf' hotel attendant, the dwarf magazine editor, the horror image of the mortuary attendant, and a multitude of sexual caricatures. Mixed with these are the "ideal" bodies of the fashion models, the exposed unnatural/natural body of the pregnant model, "real" transvestites (non-actors), twins who interchange their sexual partner, film-star parodies, television personalities and original film-stars reliving previous roles.

The grotesque lacks the classical values of deep and meaningful art; it is described as "..the least ideal form. The circle's tension is perfectly controlled, but the grotesque is always a civil war of attraction/repulsion". (5) The result of this civil war of attraction/repulsion in Pret-a-Porter, is an anarchic politic: a paradoxically playful politic of contempt. Diogenes, his dog image, is associated with public outburst and obscenity. This manner of expression shows disrespect, if not contempt, for an audience. An attitude of contempt did not go unnoticed in reviews of Pret-a-Porter. One critic compares the unanchored camera style of Jean Renoir to that of Altman; whereas Renoir is noted for his "narrative democracy", Altman is noted for his "democracy of contempt"(6).

This "democracy of contempt" has its own legitimacy as an ancient art form, as another way of expression. In Pret-a-Porter radical contemporary issues are expressed through the scatological. The motif of dog faeces shows contempt for an intrusive and aggressive kind of television and photography; it does so by making the private public and thus linking the attraction of the media with disgust. Both television and photography are connected with accidentally stepping in dog faeces: this mainly occurs in close-up and in both private and public places: in the home, in the street and in the studio. The film includes both behind-the-scenes and on-the-scene television mishaps: the camera intrudes on privacy, and it playfully exposes shameful human behaviour, as well as the greater shame of what the media decides to conceal or reveal to the public. The prevalence of dog faeces brings the 'high' down "low"; subtext comes to the surface in the form of burlesque.

The grotesque may turn against its audience; at the same time, its lack of a solid centre, and its seemingly free and weightless form, can offer its audience a kind of freedom as well. Pret-a Porter's play with representation de-centres meaning and allows for alternative readings. Many films can be read within the one film and neither is the viewer restricted to a single screen identity. Whenever one tries to grasp a firm identity, it slips away into another. In Pret-a-Porter references to past films abound: Funny Face (Donen 1957), Blow-Up (Antonioni 1966), to name only two. More intriguingly, actors' identities and previous roles spring from the past and they do so in all sorts of intricate ways. Pret-a-Porter does not simply re-enact a scene from Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (De Sica 1964), but it also employs the same actors as in the original, Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. This concept is doubled and displaced further in that the original lead actors from La Dolce Vita (Fellini 1961), Mastroianni and Aimee play leading roles once again. Some actors act as others acting themselves: Elsa Klensch appears as herself and is interviewed by Kitty Potter as another Elsa Klensch personage. This doubling upon doubling tends to make character representation lose its weight; it therefore leaves the viewer free from identification with the imaginary self behind the character. The 'real' person is never singularly or solidly there. Even when characters are "real", such as Harry Belafonte's brief appearance, they have no weight behind them. By not playing a character, these "real" people are simply seen as celebrities: nothing more than screen representations of themselves.

The seemingly formlessness of Pret-a-Porter risks losing intelligibility. As with grotesque art, the film lives on the edge of losing its edge, and it revolves in a world of ambivalent meaning and vacuum. The film appears to be both what it is and is not. It appears to be a satire on the fashion industry, but it is not. It both is and is not about clothes. It is not a meaningful piece of work about clothes as art: it is more about what clothes hide and expose. If the film is about clothes at all, then they are on the spin cycle of the washing-machine: mixed and pressed together, existing on the margin and not the centre. Not one item, one character or one subplot can be grasped without grasping another. In some ways the film is nothing more than television coverage, but it is also a film and it is also many films in one.

Not only does the grotesque have this characteristic of being more than one thing, but it also has a wide tonal range. Pret-a-Porter ranges from Diogenes' satiric play of covering and uncovering to the "fantastic" world of wonder. There are two identifiable types of grotesque and one type can turn into the other, or exist alongside the other. There is "the 'fantastic' grotesque with its oneiric worlds and the radically 'satiric' grotesque with its play of masks". (7) As a whole, Pret-a-Porter consists of a mask-like play of covering and uncovering. Clothes get lost and found, altered and duplicated; they are both decorative and instrumental in exposing human pretensions and frailties. The penultimate scene, the nude catwalk scene, slips into the 'fantastic' by taking the mask off completely. At the same time, this scene is bitterly satiric. It is Simone Lowenthal's revenge against the sell-out of her art to big American business, and, what is more black than this, is that it is her son who sells her design label- he literally sells his own mother. The nude catwalk scene is positive, confronting and also a little playful. The running joke throughout the film is that there may be many supposed fathers of the pregnant model's baby. Here, she catches the men out by displaying their conscience in public. At the same time, she catches the audience out in looking at something not usually on show. This scene interweaves the "fantastic" grotesque and the "satiric" grotesque, wonder and revenge by slippage and degree.

The 'fantastic' in this scene is its mystery: its entry into other worlds, other realities. The models walk with the cold modernity of the living dead. An aura of both life and death emanates from this scene. The pregnant model speaks of a mystery about birth and something new; the others speak about a mystery of death as they waft their tomb-like presence over the show. It has the wonder of Nero's tomb, something emerging from the underground, the crypt. Lowenthal's voice begins the scene with an echoing as if from a deep chamber. One can't help to consider here that this is also Altman's voice, speaking about what he is attempting to achieve in this film:

" The collection you are about to see represents two decades of an emerging vision. For me, it's the closing of a circle … and the beginning of something". (8)

The first model appears from behind a brick construct, another follows then another and another. The bodies appear emaciated and they walk with determined precision in their steps. Each turn, each step is controlled as if in an austere performance of modern dance. The audience watching the show is not sure how to react. At first they are stunned, some laugh and then they finally clap. The film's audience provides both a buffer and a mirror to the audience watching the film, watching the show. One becomes aware of oneself watching something usually forbidden, captivating and yet strange.

Despite the initial uneasiness and embarrassment, there is something soothing in this emptying out of meaning and non-adherence to conventional sexual roles. The grotesque way of looking in the nudity scene speaks of something primordial and strangely sterile; it offers relief from the sexually titillating. Part of this soothing effect arises from the mixed emotions of attending a live side-show fused with the theatre of the absurd. These words of relief accompany the haunting music: "You look so pretty the way you are". Clothes not only lose their meaning, but they also disappear: these models are not exhibiting clothes or their bodies; instead they are performing something closer to theatre and dance.

As with Nero's tomb, Pret-a-Porter gives a sense of entering the darkness of hell. At the same time, it is also a place of wonder: a place where sensation rests better than meaning, and a place that offers some relief from convention.


  1. Robert Altman, "Interview"by Brian D. Leitch. Robert Altman's Pret-a- Porter, London: Boxtree, 1995, (11-39), p.22
  2. See Adrian Martin, "Screwy Squirrels: Robert Altman's Kansas City"., 2/20/03 for Pret-a-Porter as being a lowpoint in Altman's career.
  3. This definition of the grotesque is from The Oxford Companion to Art, 1970 5th Ed.
  4. Wolfgang Kayser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature. Trans. Ulrich Weisstein. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1981, p.185. (Originally published Oldenburg and Hamburg: Gerhard Stalling Verlag, 1957)
  5. Geoffrey Galt Harpham, On the Grotesque: Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature. New Jersey: Princeton Univ. Press, 1982, p.9
  6. Henry Sheehan, Review. "Pret-a-Porter (Ready to Wear)", Sight and Sound 5.3 (1995): p.p.47-48
  7. Kayser, p.186
  8. "The Script", Robert Altman's Pret-a-Porter, London: Boxtree, 1995, p.187


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