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.

Richard Covington is a free - lance writer based in 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.

"I've made four films here and I've said each time, it's the last," Altman grumbles. "I guess I forget all these problems."

A few days earlier, he suffered a run-in with an obnoxiously drunken government inspector and tried to throw him off the set. No Hercule Poirot, the inspector spied Tracey Ullman's pre-teen daughter, who was visiting the set, and leaped to the illogical deduction that the filmmaker was violating child labor laws. "We had to show this inspector and his buddies the dailies to prove she was not in the film. They just harassed us terribly."

There is also the maddening exasperation of communicating with the French crew. "It's hard enough to express abstract ideas and humor and subtleties in your own language," says the director. "Having to explain in French just makes my job more difficult because I have to be so specific, and I'm looking for non-specific things to occur.

"We're setting up events, then documenting them, rather than dictating what happens, like 'Nashville' or 'MASH.' It is written literally as it's being made."

The actors themselves are writing and improvising a great deal of the dialogue. "If I see behavior I thought up, I'd get bored pretty quickly," says the director.

"Whatever happens one day changes the direction for what is going to happen the next day and 20 days after that. It has a life of its own; it's a living sculpture. The French crews don't understand that. They're used to doing things in a more literal way, where everything is storyboarded and laid out. This kind of film isn't done that way. I do films that way, and I can almost promise you the next one is going to be that way. This one is creating too much anxiety."

Altman first concocted his idea to do a film on fashion one rainy Paris day 10 years ago when his wife, Kathryn, dragged him to a Sonia Rykiel show. At first feigning sickness and a bit hung over, the director nonetheless shook off his boredom. "I was completely electrified," he recalls. "When the music started up, the lights went on and the models hit the runway, I said to myself that this is fantastic theater." But deciding to do the film didn't mean financing was immediately forthcoming. "People would ask me what's the movie about, what's the script, and I'd say, 'It's about this phenomenon.' These guys who sell this product really want simplistic things they can sell to an audience and get their money back."

But the surprise success of "The Player," followed by "Short Cuts," which won last year's top prize at the Venice Film Festival, intervened; suddenly Altman, erstwhile Hollywood pariah, was bankable again. After a series of negotiations with a number of independent producers--and the emergence of a script and several key actors--Miramax took on the $20-million film.

'P ret-a-Porter" tracks a mur der-mystery through the Paris fashion season, with as many detours as the capital on Bastille Day. Mastroianni is eluding the cops; Lovett is chasing models; Rupert Everett is secretly selling out his mother's fashion house; Roberts is forced to share a hotel room with sportswriter Robbins; Bacall is exposing it all. And, bien sur , just about everyone is cheating on everyone else.

When asked about the movie's themes, Altman tries to look patient. "This is not a heavy film," he replies. "It's more related to French farce than to French fashion.

"I can dress in a certain way right this minute and go to a restaurant down the street and they'll let me in . . . . All I can do is turn a mirror back on them and say this is what I see."

Such as the abrasive Danny Aiello character's falling asleep during a real Issey Miyake opening, then abruptly shattering the silence with a standing ovation. "All these Asian people were so polite," says Aiello, wincing at the recollection, "but the French, Germans and Americans were recoiling, saying who is this idiot? It's convincing, but it's embarrassing as hell."

Aiello, who plays a fashion buyer, charges through the film like a bargain-hunter in Macy's basement, repelling everyone he meets. At the Miyake show, he loudly grouses that the models "are wearing lampshades on their (expletive) heads." At another show, he spots Harry Belafonte and shouts across the hall: "Hey, Harry ! Remember me? The West Indies? The straw hat? The Shirley Temple? Day-o, Day-y-y-o."

When Altman first called to offer Aiello the role, the burly actor--known for his portrayals as the muddled suitor in "Moonstruck" and the pizza-making mediator of "Do the Right Thing"--had his doubts, and not only because the character was such a schmuck: He's also a cross-dresser.

"Danny was scared to death it was going to be a whole sexual thing," Altman says, grinning. "But these scenes are not what people expect them to be. The restaurant where all the cross-dressers gather is very bourgeois and boring. We're not talking about prostitutes. We're talking about law-abiding, heterosexual married men who just feel more comfortable disguised as women. At least one night a week, they let their real personality come out and they go and have fun with it. "

At the first production meeting, Aiello had a foretaste of Altman's free-wheeling style. "There we were, 30 actors, egos running rampant, and Bob is controlling this monstrosity. First thing he says is, 'I want to start off by telling you all I don't know what the (expletive) I'm doing.' What does that do but relax you? Of course it's not true. He never makes himself seem smarter than you, but my feeling is also that he is smarter than everybody."

Back on the set at Ledoyen, a Belle Epoque restaurant across the Champs-Elysees from the presidential palace, Altman is constructing a master shot of mind-boggling complexity. As the Bulgari party swirls about them, Marcello Mastroianni is grasping Sophia Loren by the elbow, urgently pleading in Italian for something that is obviously upsetting her. Her famous cleavage, tanned to a deep mahogany, heaves inside her low-cut black dress. Agitation, amusement and longing flush her face, burning away her glacial calm. Around a display case, Sally Kellerman, playing an editor of Harper's Bazaar, thrusts her assistant in pursuit of blackmail snapshots photographer Stephen Rea has taken of her and other fashion editors. Meanwhile Linda Hunt, the editor of American Elle, is sidestepping questions from Lili Taylor, a New York Times investigative reporter.

In one corner of the salon ballroom, the director hunches down before monitors of the two principal cameras, fixedly observing the rehearsal. He halts it in mid-stream and stalks stiff-legged over to rearrange his main players and rechoreograph their movement. "Let's get some people through here," he shouts. "And please don't look at Sophia or any of the actors. Do whatever else you want, I don't care. It's a party."

On occasion, Altman will rehearse a scene one way, then during the filming, will throw it a curve, knocking an already improvised situation even further off balance. Backstage after Whitaker's show, for example, he decided to have Aiello pick a fight with Rea's assistant as the horrified models and well-wishers scattered, spilling Champagne and swearing. Except for Altman and the two principal actors, no one else knew of the scene in advance.

Seated back at the monitors, Altman squirms a bit, then calls out somewhat testily: "This dialogue has got to flow." Looking like a Day-Glo Madame Butterfly, Rossy de Palma swans by the screen in iridescent scarlet dress with a blue butterfly vying for space amid the gold bows and baubles in her coiffure. With her magnificent Dora Maar nose, the star of "Kika," "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" and other Almodovar films, is a serene vision of the surreal. Altman's scowl dissolves into a broad smile. He ambles over to Kellerman. "Why don't you duck behind this case, like this," he says, demonstrating, "then pop up again. You have to hide, but you can't resist peeking either."

Later, Kellerman, an Altman veteran since "MASH," demystifies a bit of the director's technique. "Bob will set up a huge master (shot) that very few people in the world could do, squeezing everyone into one scene and getting them all heard and seen. Then he says: 'Well, this probably isn't going to work anyway, so just go ahead and do what you do. But stay in character even though you probably won't be on camera.' So you say, 'OK, I might as well go ahead and have a good time.' "

The first stage in Altman's ge nius lies in persuading a smor gasbord of manifestly talented actors to sign on, generally taking substantial salary cuts for the privilege. He casts celebrities not only to attract a wider public, but also so that audiences have an easier time keeping the characters straight. "When you see Kim Basinger or Tim Robbins, you remember instantly who they're supposed to be," the director explains. Famously candid, Altman hooked Rea by telling him: "Look, this Irish photographer is a real (expletive) and I haven't seen you play (expletive) really." Rea accepted instantly.

In preparing for his role, Rea borrowed his affectation of hiding behind sunglasses from fashion photographer Steven Meisel, but modeled his behavior more on U2's Bono. "I tried to think of the cool guys in Ireland, " Rea explains in a liquid Belfast brogue, "so (expletive) laid-back, you know? There's something amusing about that kind of vanity."

Following her scene with the Times reporter, Hunt is positively buoyant as she enters the Ledoyen bar away from the filming. "At last I had something scripted," she exults triumphantly. Improvising dialogue has been pure torture. "My character comes across as rather vacant. And she got that way because for the first five weeks I never had a clue of what to say. I got very good at laughing. People would talk to me and I'd respond meaningfully: 'Ha-ah-ha-ah-ha, yes-s-s-s,' " she cackles, her shrill voice trailing dementedly.

The Altman style, Hunt observes, is minimalist, to say the least. "He gives you so little. He just trusts."

Just before the runway scene of nude models, Altman sidles over to Whitaker to offer the barest advice. "Your designer probably acts like you approve of this stuff; it's more toward the way you think about fashion." To another actor, he suggests, very simply, that he look away bored when he's stuck in one conversation.

Whitaker's designer is based on Parisian anti-fashion outsider Xuly Bet, whose patchwork recycled clothes and headpieces tufted with blue plastic garbage bags make his giraffe-like models look as if they had dived head first into washing machines. Wearing a T-shirt with a photo of Che Guevara stretched across his ample frame, Whitaker's character embodies the spy in the house of fashion, an agitator who believes clothes should be inexpensive and make people feel comfortable, not inadequate.

Like his character, Whitaker lambastes most fashion as a form of brainwashing. But success brings its own pressures. "It's difficult to be anti-fashion when you start to become part of the Establishment," he says. "You start feeling the breath of the dragon."

Dragon breath fairly well describes Basinger's fiery attack on the Emperor's New Clothes send-up. As the applauding crowds press forward, the Basinger commentator, dressed in a scarlet velvet flared pantsuit, seeks refuge behind ancient Roman columns and indignantly struggles for a comment. "It's new, it's old, it's the bare look, for every man, woman and child. Is this fashion? I don't think so. It's just a bunch of naked people. What the hell am I doing? I have had it. You want yourself a career?" she explodes, tossing the microphone to her assistant, Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of Marcello.

Watching in the wings, Altman halts the action then crosses over to Chiara. "You're shocked, you're saying, 'What the hell am I supposed to do?' Then you take the mike." He backs off, Basinger repeats her tirade, Chiara catches the mike as her boss storms off. "We have seen tonight a statement of fashion in the profoundest sense of the word," she drones. As anyone who recalls Peter Finch's futile jeremiad in "Network" might have predicted, the enticing circle of glamour and deceit continues unbroken.

If Altman is right, however, the public may soon be catching on.

"The film could not have happened at a better time in history," he later argues. "Because of the vast communication of CNN and so forth, fashion is being overexposed--and exposed--in the best sense. They can't fool people so much any more. You can't force people to wear long skirts or short skirts. They'll do anything they want.

"The film business is worse than any of them. We make ourselves feel self-important about this great movie and this great actor and blah-blah-blah. You go in and see these silly little stories that are just stupid. These companies are all going to have to turn back to the artist because this stuff they're doing is silly and people just aren't going to see it."

Altman stands up to go. With bemused world-weariness, the director gives a philosophic shrug of the shoulders. "Things constantly change," he says, waving his hand in an airy oblique gesture. "We're all turned into carbon in that respect." Fashion, film, and other ephemera--these too shall pass--but "Pret-a-Porter" seems likely to stamp its own whimsical mark on all these inimitable follies.*

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