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Altman Views America, Foibles From Abroad

August 17, 1986|MARY BLUME

PARIS — Robert Altman's latest film, "Beyond Therapy," is set largely in a New York French restaurant, so Altman has shot it in a French French restaurant in Les Halles where the food is marginally, but only marginally, better.

"Beyond Therapy" stars Glenda Jackson as a psychiatrist named Mrs. Wallace (one of her main problems is that she keeps marrying men named Wallace), Tom Conti as an equally addled colleague, and Jeff Goldblum, Julie Hagerty and Genevieve Page as their patients. "I've never had so much fun," Hagerty says.

As usual, Altman's set was funny and freewheeling. While most film sets have the spontaneity of maximum security prisons, his is more like summer camp. Altman keeps a beady eye on everything, but is open and receptive: He knows from rehearsals exactly what he has and so can allow his actors freedom and trust.

"How are you going to do that?" he asks Jackson, who has to climb over the ledge of the restaurant's cloakroom. "The funniest way I can, I guess," she replies. And does.

"Beyond Therapy," based on the Christopher Durang play, is set for release by New World Pictures. It promises to go beyond the usual shrink jokes and is, says Altman, a farce "about the over-saturation of therapy, the over-concentration of people worrying about themselves."

In all his films, no matter what their period or setting, Altman is talking about America today. Right now he is doing it from Paris, having moved his family here and having set up his production company, Sandcastle (so named on the theory that nothing as much fun as film-making can last), in a former carriage house in the Latin Quarter.

He says it's interesting to view America from another shore: "You tend to fall into ruts. No matter how hard you fight it, you have to take the shape of the landscape. And I'd rather fight it," he says.

Another showman on the Paris scene this summer is the fashion designer Paul Poiret, honored by an exhibition of his sumptuous designs 42 years after his death.

Poiret hit the heights in la Belle Epoque, the years between the end of the 19th-Century and the start of World War I. The most revolutionary designer of all time, he not only banished the corset but single-handedly invented the modern haute couture. Boutiques, house perfumes, royalties for ready-to-wear, textile design Raoul Dufy was among his artists), interior decoration, discovery of the American market and exuberant self-promotion were all his inventions. He called in photographers like Steichen and Man Ray to take pictures of his clothes and he even wrote a cookbook.

He was, in his field and on the Paris scene, a great man, the first of the fashion dictators and the first to see fashion from a sociological point of view as part of what he called a "mode de vie" and what we would call life style. Because he replaced the tightly corseted line by a narrow, flowing loose drape, he has been called a precursor of women's lib, but this is going too far. Liberation was not Poiret's line and his own corpulent figure could be quite godlike. On his office door hung a sign, "Attention! Danger! Before knocking, ask yourself three times is it absolutely necessary to disturb HIM?"

Asked by a reporter on a publicity trip to Boston whether the world might expect a return to modesty, Poiret majestically and truthfully, replied, "Pardon me, madame, but modesty does not interest me."

Before Poiret, designers were dressmakers. Poiret was a costumer, a showman draping rich fabrics over mannequins rather than pinning and tucking. Early in his career, he designed the famous white uniform Sarah Bernhardt wore as the doomed prince in "L'Aiglon." Later he made for Mistinguett a costume that was to look like a rose with a great diamond covered stalk on her head. "I can't dance in that," Mistinguett dared complain at the first fitting. "You can't dance in anything," Poiret replied.

After an apprenticeship in such dignified houses as Doucet and Worth, Poiret opened his own house in 1903. His wife was his best model and they were soon on the crest of the wave. "I hope you may come to know a time like my youth," Poiret later wrote, "when people could enjoy the present because they had confidence in the future."

When World War I broke out Poiret, the father of five, promptly enlisted and served 4 1/2 years. His fashion house, already beset by financial problems caused by Poiret's improvidence, never quite recovered although Poiret continued to entertain and to live on a grand scale. Soon he was broke and, worse, demode.

The fashion house closed in 1929 but Poiret had the misfortune to live on in poverty, cadging and then splurging when a handout came his way, making at one point a suit for himself from a hotel peignoir and reciting poems in cafes for the odd coin or two.

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