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A Double Bill: Ready to Wear (Pret a Porter) and The Truth About Cats and Dogs

My friends are horrified by the number of fashion and beauty magazines I buy and read regularly. I understand this, and, in fact, feel some of the indignation myself. The women photographed look unhealthy and unhappy. But, more significantly, I don’t think magazine editors and fashion photographers realize how ridiculous they seem to the rest of us.

In the film Ready To Wear (Pret a Porter), Robert Altman, the most brilliant satirist of our time, does for the fashion industry what he did for war (M*A*S*H), marriage (A Wedding), and the music industry (Nashville). He re-creates the whole ridiculous world of clothes: A cruel and humiliating photographer (Stephen Rea), gay designers (Rupert Everett, Forest Whitaker, and Richard E. Grant), fashion reporters (Kim Basinger), the French fashion aristocracy (Sophia Lauren), the American magazine editors (Linda Hunt, Tracey Ullman, and Sally Kellerman), and the American buyer (Danny Aiello). Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts play American journalists who don’t dress well, but have lots of sex because they’re forced to share a hotel room and don’t have any clothes. Once the two are dressed, however, their ability to relate dissolves. Famous models flit in and out of the film, too.

Representing “us” is Teri Garr, who walks into the stores of Paris and asks, “Do you have this in a 14 or 18?” Although she is a sweet person, she spends her whole French vacation shopping.

This movie is perfect in its creation, but flawed in its execution. In other words, so quintessentially does Robert Altman satirize the fashion industry that we couldn’t care less about the designers, models, reporters, and editors who try so desperately to keep women obsessed with their looks. On the other hand, viewers who are easily taken in by superficialities probably won’t even get the satire, so they’ll miss the point of the movie entirely. (For example, is there anyone in the upper ranks of the Army who would list M*A*S*H as his favorite movie? That seems impossible and yet wouldn’t it be great?!)

Meanwhile, there are the rest of us, bombarded by the message sent by these vain and conceited people. For them, filmmakers created the movie The Truth About Cats and Dogs. starring Janeane Garafalo, Uma Thurman, and Ben Chaplin. It is a gender-switched version of the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, plus a happier ending.

Abby Barnes (Garafalo), a radio talk show veterinarian, helps out a very cute guy over the airwaves who, in return, wants to meet her. She tells him, over the phone and while staring at a magazine picture of her neighbor, Noelle (Thurman), that she’s 5’10″ and blond (she’s not). He comes to meet her, forcing Noelle to pretend she’s Abby. What follows is a comedy of mis-placed identities, the blossoming of a love affair (two, actually) and the creation of a strong friendship.

Whilst nurturing their new-found bond, Uma asks Janeane, “Do you believe you are what you eat? See, I guess that’s what scares me. I don’t eat anything so I can look good on the outside, but on the inside, there’s nothing.” Unfortunately, Uma is rewarded for this behavior. She has a boyfriend (he’s abusive and demeaning, but Janeane is alone except for her cat), and numerous men on the street fall (literally) all over her. Janeane, on the other hand, practices her violin at night and has to open her own doors, because the men nearby are opening doors for the “prettier” women who enter buildings alongside her.

What I like best about this movie is that it isn’t Uma who believes men only want beauty in a woman. And it isn’t Ben Chaplin who thinks that. It’s Janeane. Gloria Steinhem once wrote that intelligent people can rationalize anything. In other words, if you’re smart you can convince yourself that even a stupid idea makes sense. Although she helps Uma escape the asshole boyfriend, Janeane doesn’t do anything to allow herself some happiness. She’s completely convinced herself that she isn’t good enough.

Janeane’s character reminds me of my friends. Accomplished, smart, interesting, helpful, they’re all great catches, but many of them believe they just need to lose weight or tone down their thighs. This isn’t surprising, of course, given that the women we see in advertisements, like Uma Thurman, reflect a small percentage of the population, but are seen all over the pages of magazines and on television.

The movie reminds us that a narrow definition of beauty is a trap for all women. It forces Uma to value only her looks and, likewise, it convinces Janeane that without good looks she isn’t anything.

Therefore, the characters in Pret a Porter , however stupid and vain, have been successful. They’ve set up a ridiculous standard that they stand outside of (because none of them are model-material), but control. They attempt to hold women hostage to this false creation. In fact, while walking through a departemtn store, Janeane tells Uma “You’d be the perfect political prisoner. You would act self-righteous and starve.”

So fight back! Eat. And feel good about yourself.

 

Donna Raskin is a writer for Rodale Press, a personal trainer and yoga instructor. She has a terrific giggle and gives great advice. -kgb