But darlings, it will never catch on in Kansas

SATURDAY NIGHT
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The Independent Online
At a time when fashion is running out of lies to tell itself, Robert Altman's new film, Prt A Porter, arrives as a godsend. It does not really matter that it takes nearly two hours to say nothing. As with its subject, it exists and that is enough. It is, therefore we love it.

Especially the merchandising. Prt A Porter has spawned a sumptuous hardback book complete with handwritten observations by its stars. The most arresting fact about Kim Basinger's penses is that she cannot manage joined-up letters. For playing a dumb blonde, when her handwriting suggests she may not be acting, we have to love her.

Richard E Grant impersonates an insufferably pretentious designer, but his performance is infinitely more damning about British actors. Lauren Bacall is utterly wasted and should sue for misuse of a legend. Terri Garr and Danny Aiello are included for no other reason than to make fat people feel at home.

As for Rupert Everett, well darling, that franglais accent is beyond, simply beyond, as we say in the trade. For these failings, we love you all. Kissy-kissy. Mmmm-wah!

Air-kisses to the writers, too, for a script full of farce and devoid of wit which merely underlines an obvious truth: fashion at the end of the 20th century is already a form of self-parody. How can you expect to ridicule it, and even if you managed, how would you know? No one in the industry cares what outsiders think because no put-down, be it ever so barbed, could be half so malicious as the approbation of the in-crowd.

Darlings, where is the madness? Your inability to manufacture the everyday surrealism of fashion is encapsulated in one telling moment where Basinger, as a gushing American television reporter, grabs a genuinely unscripted interview with Sky TV's style doyenne, Elsa Klensch.

The "real" reporter, who has the 100-yard gaze of an utter loony, simply acts "naturally" for Altman's cameras, and leaves Basinger looking as limp as wet lettuce.

And whither the supermodels? Where are Naomi, Christy, Linda and Nadia, whose job it is to demonstrate fashion's addiction to waste? Where is Amber Valetta when you don't need her? Sure, there are plenty of gorgeous, naked girls on display, but fashion cannot thrive on tits alone. Those tits must say something, and only world-famous tits speak to us.

Speaking of which, if you must labour the point about nauseatingly pompous designers, why not use Route One? Thirty seconds of Vivienne Westwood - a woman with an irony by-pass - talking to camera about her own genius (as she does, at the drop of a beret) would have put the matter beyond question.

Instead, Prt A Porter flatters to deceive. Far from being a film about fashion, its backbone is provided by Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts (both superb), as a pair of mismatched reporters, in a screwball comedy routine that is pure Howard Hawks.

Again, the film's sharpest observation has Robbins cribbing his copy directly from Sky News in his Parisian hotel room, then phoning it in to his Washington office. Perhaps Altman should have remade Hold the Front Page. Instead, he gives us Carry On up the Catwalk, minus the toilet humour. And we cannot thank him enough for it.

You see, the trouble with Prt A Porter is not its ham acting, its mongrel script, flabby camerawork or clumsy editing. It is the Kansas Factor - or Hollywood's tendency to second-guess Middle America's reaction.

Kansans, apparently, need the plot spelled out in letters the size of the Hollywood sign. Indeed, so great was this film's Kansas Factor that its title was changed to Ready To Wear for release in the United States, so as not to frighten off American audiences, who might otherwise think it was subtitled. And though we sneer, we love them for their provinciality. In fact, we think it may be directional for next season.

Fashion is all about extravagance, excess, opulence, arrogance, revulsion, and cruel forms of beauty. It is hard to define, but when you wear it, you are definitely not in Kansas any more.

By taking the mickey, by making a mousy, modest little film "about" fashion - something Middle Americans might understand - Robert Altman has missed the point entirely. And in so doing he inadvertently proves that fashion - an essentially European mode of excess - is even bigger than the so- called big screen.

Hollywood may have swallowed our history whole, but there are still a few gristly bits it cannot bring itself to digest.

Therefore, I urge you to see the film. Why? Because on this side of the pond, we seem to prefer to smother the loser with loving condescension, rather than celebrate our own success.

Does that seem to be fickle and perverse? Well, that is the fashion industry for you.

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