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ON LOCATION : Acid-Washed Fashion : Robert Altman is fashioning a farcical portrait of yet another gang of profiteers and poseurs, with a few genuine visionaries thrown in. Well, isn't that just fashionable.

August 14, 1994|Richard Covington | Richard Covington is a free - lance writer based in Paris

PARIS — Looking like a vampire desperate for a feed, Richard Grant recoils from Kim Basinger as if she were a gilt crucifix. But it's even worse: She's an airhead TV fashion reporter, closing in for her own version of blood-sucking, the sound bite.

Decadently resplendent in fire-engine red lipstick, scarlet velvet suit, black velvet cutaway topcoat, heart-shaped blue spectacles, Grant portrays a new romantic fashion designer loosely modeled after the provocative British designer Vivienne Westwood. His character supposedly never deigns to read fashion magazines, much less join the gawking masses at shows by the competition. But here he is in a converted Paris subway station trying to hide in the crowd gathered for the collection premiere by an underground designer played by Forest Whitaker. ("Where else would an underground designer have a show but under ground?" chirps Basinger.)

As Grant shields his face with a velvet fedora roomy enough to plant a Christmas tree, the brassy reporter descends, pertly badgering him on what he thinks of Whitaker's "recouped, deconstructed look."

"You cannot deconstruct a look before you construct one," Grant hisses venomously. "Learn how to draw first before you start farting around with finger-paints. It's exactly what Schiaparelli said about Chanel: 'The damn bitch has been selling the same frock for the last 35 years.' You can't go forward backward; you have to go back to go forward."

"But . . ." Basinger starts to protest futilely.

"I have one more thing to say to the press in general and to you in particular," the designer spits back. "How many g's are there in bugger off?" Grant's blanched pancake makeup fairly steams and the inverted question mark of a black forelock artfully plastered to his forehead droops slightly, as if in sympathy with his fit of frustration and disgust.

"My, what an artistic temperament," the reporter drawls ironically as she slinks away. "Where I come from, we call it an asshole."

"Cut!" yells Robert Altman, his face breaking into a grudging, crooked grin. "Good, very good, tres bien ." But the two cameras continue to roll, catching actors and extras unawares. It's a tried-and-true Altman trick. Since the actors always wear microphones, they're constantly "on," in character--even, perhaps especially, when the director fakes a cut. "The crew picks up all these soundtracks and how Bob will use them, we don't know," muses Lauren Bacall.

The technique is tailor-made for this "documentary feature" on fashion where Basinger and Grant, Bacall, Julia Roberts, Tim Robbins, Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Lyle Lovett, Tracey Ullman, Sally Kellerman and Danny Aiello, among others on the epic, eclectic cast, were peppered through actual shows of the Paris fall collections.

A fter skewering Hollywood in "The Player" and turning a jaundiced eye on the exploded nuclear family in "Short Cuts," Altman is crafting a farcical portrait of yet another realm of poseurs, profiteers and genuine visionaries. "Pret-a-Porter" (French for ready- to-wear), due for release at the end of the year, far and away his most ambitious undertaking. For 11 weeks this spring in Paris, Altman conducted his controlled experiment in chaos theory through opera house, airport, museum, hotel, restaurant, subway station, chateau, designer atelier, street, bridge and, of course, fashion show runway, both real and fabricated.

Altman's rolling revue encamped at Dior, Miyake, Gaultier, Lacroix and Rykiel. Under the high-vaulted ceiling of the Roman baths at Cluny museum, he staged a broad spoof of a show that could have been titled "The Emperor's New Clothes." As unclothed models made their beatific glide down the runway, Altman strained to make his voice heard after the 500 actors and clamoring extras thundered into wild applause. More models, clothed this time, flocked into an opulent Parisian restaurant hosting a Bulgari jewelry opening as Altman maneuvered his actors through the party, snatching their improvised dialogue and that of guests, journalists and designers mingling about.

The film, at first effusively embraced by the fashion industry, was capriciously snubbed by a handful of influential designers and editors--Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino, Vogue Editor Anna Wintour and Women's Wear Daily Publisher John Fairchild among them.

"These people are just paranoid," snorts Altman. "They don't have any idea what the film is about and would never listen. They're all stupid, self-important people, basically. And they're guilty. Any time anybody says, 'I don't want you talking about me,' that means they've got something to hide. Basically we don't care about them."

The 66-year-old director is sitting behind his desk in the production office off the Champs-Elysees, looking more than a little haggard after weeks of 14-hour days' and nights' shooting. Trying to make a free-form film in a country ruled by linear Cartesian thinking and rigid bureaucracy has taken its toll.

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