All dressed up, nowhere to go

REVIEWS: Adam Mars-Jones and the designer Helen Storey (right) undress Altman's Prt--Porter; plus Les Roseaux Sauvages
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The Independent Culture
Robert Altman's periodic need to make a terrible film (Images, A Wedding, Health... the list goes on) is exercised one more time in Prt- -Porter, a supremely slack satire on the fashion business.

A few years ago when Altman invented a political candidate in collaboration with the cartoonist Garry Trudeau, and had him discuss issues with actual public figures in front of real audiences, he seemed to know exactly what he was doing. But when he tries the same sort of trick with a superficial society of high fashion, already teetering on the brink of self-parody, it is him that takes the fall. How is it possible to be out of your depth in a world where there isn't any?

It takes a particular kind of artistic death wish to have satire rebound on you quite so thoroughly. Prt--Porter (written by the director with Barbara Shulgasser) is set in Paris, and makes perfunctory digs at Americans who go to France and then order burgers and fries, but the film itself uses Paris as a backdrop of the most clichd kind - postcardy images of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre-Dame at dawn and so on. Its French characters, like the prefect of police, Inspector Tantpis (Tant pis, too bad, get it), make Inspector Clouseau seem like a miracle of Gallic authenticity. Altogether, Altman is closer to Blake Edwards on this film than to his own best self - except that Edwards might not be so easily amused by people treading in dog shit (the encounter between a well-shod foot and a waiting turd is something of a recurring theme in Prt--Porter).

The film is damaged as much by its occasional flashes of wit as by its long stretches of banality. A magazine editor (Tracey Ullman) at a party asks snappishly why they can't talk about something serious for once, and a photojournalist says immediately, "How do you feel about the fact that 50 per cent of the world's pollution is caused by the textile mills?"

Ullman's response makes it clear that this wasn't at all the discussion she had in mind, but the question is too serious for the film also. Fashion doesn't have the choice to be actively "about" issues (though it can't help being passively about sex, money and ageing), as is proved whenever a designer tries to turn a collection of clothes into a critique of society, but film-making does.

If the statistic about textile-industry pollution is true (and is it?) then Altman should be ashamed to make a film that can accommodate it only as a smart remark at a party.

Since the photojournalist (Lily Taylor) is one of the few characters to dress down, but nevertheless makes her grungy choices from a whole roomful of drab outfits, we're at liberty to see her simply as a hypocrite. But the tone of Prt--Porter is so erratic throughout that you would think it was the director's first effort. There's a plot strand about a couple of Americans, played by Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts, forced to share a hotel room when they are both also separated from their luggage. They spend their time in hotel dressing gowns, and when alcohol comes along to lubricate their antagonisms, they become lovers.

The idea seems to be that the clothes we wear separate us from each other. In the artificial Eden of the hotel room, two incompatible people in towelling robes can reach out to each other. But in the scene where the couple's clothes finally arrive, and she is revealed as a fashion-plate, he as a sports journalist with a pathological fondness for checks, Altman forgets to be sardonic and goes for the sentimental bittersweet.

Two of the characters are offered to us as potential sources of value. One is the photographer Milo (Stephen Rea), who is honest enough to describe the essence of the fashion world as "taking advantage of other people's insecurities". Then he turns out to be a monster in his own right, who takes pleasure in humiliating three fashion editors who are competing for his services. There's a particular ugliness in the come-uppance visited on the character played by Sally Kellerman, as if someone behind the camera was revelling in it. The last time Kellerman was sexually humiliated in an Altman film (playing Hotlips in M*A*S*H) she got an Academy Award nomination for her pains, so perhaps she doesn't mind that Prt--Porter shows no more affection for its performers than its characters.

In any case, the complaint against the film is not that it is sour but that it is shockingly lazy. A more enduring centre of value in the film than Milo is apparently the designer Simone Low (Anouk Aime), but no one bothers to show us why and how she is a person of integrity when everyone else is a fool or a fake. She just looks nice, and that seems to be enough.

Anouk Aime also appears in Andr Tchin's Les Roseaux Sauvages, on a poster advertising Jacques Demy's Lola, and looking very much as she does now. The year is 1962: Algeria has gained its independence, and Henri (Frdric Gorny), the new boy at a school in the south-west of France, keeps his radio glued to his ear for news. He was born in Algeria, and can't forgive his supposed mother country for the betrayal of decolonialisation.

The form teacher, Madame Alvarez, is a leading local Communist, while the brother of one of Henri's new classmates is serving in Algeria. The stage is set for some fairly routine conflict between different ideologies and experiences of life. This does duly materialise but there is also a less predictable set of tensions. If all film-obsessed characters with health problems that stop them from joining gym class in movies are self- portraits of the director, then Tchin's stand-in is Franois (Gael Morel). Franois has an established relationship with Mait (Elodie Bouchez), but in the course of the film, and without losing her friendship, he realises that he is attracted to his own sex. Disconcertingly, she tells him that their chaste coupledom has been protecting her too, since she can't decide whether to sleep with absolutely everyone or no one at all.

The title of the film means wild reeds, and is explicitly linked to the fable of the oak and the reeds, with its suggestion that flexibility is the true strength. Mait's mother, the boy's form teacher, is blown apart in a gale of guilt when she hears that a soldier whose planned desertion she has refused to help - because he doesn't meet her political criteria - has been killed in Algeria.

The young people are more adaptable. The best thing about the film is the way Franois's difficulties of sexual adjustment are neither glossed over nor allowed to overshadow everything else. There is humour here, too, in a scene where Franois asks advice of the only settled homosexual he can find locally, a man who runs a shoe shop (Franois announces that he needs to ask a question, "not about shoes but about destiny"). Perhaps, though, we could have done without the final shot in this scene, of the older man looking stricken, presumably at his inability to help someone with a lot on his plate.

The weaknesses of Les Roseaux Sauvages are an over- reliance on Samuel Barber's all-too-familiar Adagio on the soundtrack, to convey an all-purpose mood of eulogy, and a lack of dramatic focus that makes the overall experience of the film rather unsatisfying.

But at least the coming-of-age movie is a genre that people like - it's the cinematic equivalent of the little black dress, and every season's collection of films will contain a few variations on it. It certainly deserves a larger audience than Prt--Porter, where a major film-maker who at his best is beyond fashion sends his notions on to the catwalk embarrassingly naked.

n On release from tomorrow