Altman: ready to weary

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DOES Robert Altman, the emperor of improvisation, have any clothes on? The question has echoed through his career: swelling to a chorus in disasters such as A Wedding (1978); reduced to a few discordant murmurs after triumphs such as last year's Short Cuts. Inconsistency is inevitable in such a prolific and experimental director. But with Altman the hits and the misses have a curious symmetry: they both spring from a style of film-making where the script is just a launch-pad for the actors' improvisations and Altman's own prankish asides. With their vast casts of characters dropping in and out, Altman's films are often more like parties than movies. Sometimes it's a riot. Sometimes the chemistry's not there, the guests don't have much to say, and you'd rather leave early.

To Altman's latest, Prt--Porter (15), you'd be better off bringing a pillow rather than a bottle. Billed as a satirical extravaganza, set during the Paris spring collections, it has a huge, illustrious cast, but feels like a film full of cameos. There is a buffish pleasure in glimpsing the stars of yesteryear who were unable to resist Altman's invitation. Anouk Aime plays a starry designer and Lauren Bacall is a former fashion editor, though from the amount we see them they could swap jobs without us noticing. Marcello Mastroianni is a shady Russian tailor who may or may not have murdered the head of the Fashion Council - the movie's one, lame, gesture at a plot. Sophia Loren plays the dead man's merry widow, a role as skimpy as the suspender belt in which, in time-honoured fashion, she parades for Mastroianni.

The younger generation also puts in a fleeting appearance. Kim Basinger is a TV reporter who breathes hype. Julia Roberts is a dipsomaniac journalist who has a fling with Tim Robbins, a sports hack roped into covering the scandal. Richard E Grant and Forest Whitaker are a pair of mutually adoring designers. Tracey Ullman, Linda Hunt and Sally Kellerman are a trio of fashion editors (compared, in one of the film's few sharp lines, to Macbeth's three witches) all trying to lure the same photographer (Stephen Rea) to work for them. Rea humiliates each in turn by taking pictures of them at their most nakedly beseeching - the film's idea of a barbed comment on the editors' own glossy violation of women's bodies and privacy.

In Nashville (1975) and Short Cuts we dipped in and out of lives, like an eavesdropper at a telephone exchange. Whether the characters were tragic or funny, they were gloriously alive. Prt--Porter's people are all caricatures or outlines, mere doodles. Altman isn't interested in them. You sense that Altman felt the fashion world and its denizens were beneath satirising. Unlike Nashville's country-music kingdom, the world of fashion feels neither closely observed nor deeply researched. "These French really know how to make wine," Julia Roberts reflects. The film is on equally sketchy terms with its setting.

If Altman has a theme it's that the fashion world is (surprise) superficial. You could make a pretty profound film about superficiality, but this is not it. Altman's way of saying that fashion is skin-deep is to get his models to parade naked at the end of the film. He points out the gulf between our shiny raiments and the base bodies they cover up by having a running gag in which members of his coutured crowd step in dog dirt (he's so fond of it that he works it four times). In one of the film's few coherent speeches, Marcello's daughter Chiara Mastroianni, as Kim Basinger's able assistant, editorialises about the Nude Collection, quoting a designer who had complained: "There is no one left to dress." The idea is that people are no longer worth clothing. That seems to be Altman's view - a superficial one in itself. It accounts for the film's tone, which is both flip and misanthropic. There is more ordure than ardour in it.

You would expect the film to be a feast for the eyes, if not the mind. But Altman's shooting of the shows is surprisingly flat, little different from The Clothes Show. A lot of the in-crowd has stayed out - there are as few supermodels as laughs. They may have made the right decision for the wrong reason, if they feared being savaged by Altman's satire.

None of the cast is allowed to get up a head of steam. But I enjoyed Lauren Bacall's grande dame, whose smooth protocol fails to hide a jaundiced outlook. Anouk Aime's lite designer has true class: composed, icy, well- travelled - one of the few characters you'd have liked to have explored further. It's an indictment of the script that the most lively character is CNN's fashion queen, Elsa Klensch, playing herself (the movie's stuffed with covert plugs for CNN and Sky television).

That there might be artistry in the fashion world, in among all the hype, is something that Altman doesn't allow for. He gives a hint of a deeper, more harrowing vision in his final scene, as the models parade nude, in sad, dignified slow motion. With them is the German singer Ute Lemper, her belly swollen after eight months' pregnancy, her hair veiled, and garlanded with flowers, so that she resembles Ophelia in her mad scene. It might have been a tour de force if Altman hadn't led up to it with so much frippery. If he had created a few credible characters, he would then have been able to lay them bare. As it is, it's the film-maker himself who looks exposed.

Andr Tchin's Les Roseaux Sauvages (15) studies passionate friendship between adolescents. It's 1962 and the rural idyll of south-western France ambles on in the shadow of the Algerian conflict. The film is a sentimental education - times four. The sullen, serious Henri spouts nationalist propaganda; Serge feels the force of the war when his brother is killed; Franois, a shifty, sensitive boy, already bruised by life, struggles with his homosexuality; Mat, the daughter of the sardonic schoolteacher, comforts him. Franois is the film's centre, and his dilemma is reflected in the title, which refers to the parable about reeds getting a better deal from nature than oaks, because though they sway they are never uprooted. The film, like the reeds, though delicate, stands firm.

Cinema details: Review, page 74.