High Fashions

by Stanley Kauffmann | July 31, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada  (20th Century Fox)

Heading South  (Shadow)

The title fixes the place and the tone: a film that is called The Devil Wears Prada must live in the world of fashion and its diabolics. The specific place is a slick magazine called Runway, and the air around it is filled with the slash of verbal rapiers and stilettos, lunging and parrying. The screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna, derived from Lauren Weisberger's novel, begins with reminders of a previous picture about a fashion mag, Stanley Donen's Funny Face (1957). Once again the sovereign is an imperious woman, whose staff are tremulous slaves competing in hard-breathing smartness. Once again the courtiers are upset by a newcomer, a young woman who appears in un-chic clothes. Once again there is, later on, a trip to Paris.

But in this new picture the focus on fashion is only one of the templates. Devil is not only about style in women's clothes; it is also concerned with cinematic style and with moral style. Cinematically, as in numerous films about high-pressure offices of many kinds, newspaper or brokerage or advertising, the pulse of the picture keeps pounding. The only way these people protect themselves from being stabbed in the back is to keep as far ahead as possible. As the picture's tempo begins to engulf us, we feel that we have been on this roller coaster before. David Frankel, the director, deftly aided by the editor, Mark Livolsi, seems to count on our familiarity with this hectic genre.

Basically, however, the film is built on a third pattern--what is by now a familiar exercise in American morality. First comes a waltz--a long one--with the Bitch Goddess, after which the protagonist sobers up and goes straight. In Devil an idealistic young woman comes to New York and gets a job: exciting and prestigious, but not what she had been aiming for. After a certain amount of success and disgust, she shucks the golden shackles. (Some male predecessors are in Five Star Final, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Hucksters.) The heroine of Devil wants to be a serious journalist, gets caught in the glitzy maelstrom, but finally cuts loose. This heroine is played by Anne Hathaway, one more big-ballyhoo nondiscovery, the flattest "major" arrival since Audrey Tautou. Hathaway has big eyes and small talent. She is so juiceless that she undermines the scene in which she is hired by the supposedly astute editor.

That editor, called Miranda Priestly, is Meryl Streep, who is white-haired here and, uncomfortable though it is to say so, is disappointing. Never in the course of the film does Miranda raise her voice, whether commanding or dismissing or even grudgingly admitting satisfaction. Apparently Miranda decided early in her career to play against type, to keep the voce very sotto, as a surprise to those who expect a blast and to unnerve victims. But Streep doesn't give us the woman who made that decision, the woman who restrains her impatience and anger with the dolts who inhabit her world. We get no sense from her of that vocal pitch as this woman's calculated method. She is simply soft- voiced. (And the director's one dull touch is Miranda's first appearance. In a low-level shot, we see her legs swing out of her car. May it be the last time we see that shot.)

The best performance comes from Stanley Tucci as the Runway art director. Tucci presents a homosexual man without a trace of cartoon--shrewd, skilled, and weathered without being worn. It is a well-judged and accomplished piece of work. Hathaway's boyfriend, who provides a plot counterpoint, is adequately rendered by Adrian Grenier, and a detour in their relationship is supplied by the attractive Simon Baker.

With his second major film, Time Out, the French director Laurent Cantet established himself as a serious artist. (I missed Human Resources, his first film released in the United States.) Now, with his third, Heading South, Cantet both buttresses his reputation and worries it a bit.

The setting is Haiti--Port-au-Prince--in the 1970s, the time of Baby Doc. Most of the film takes place at a resort hotel on the beach, and most of it concerns two well-to-do white women from America, who speak French and spend summers there. (There is a third woman, genuinely French, but she is auxiliary. ) They partake in what is apparently a recognized summer sport--liaisons with young Haitian men who furnish attention and sex in return for generous gifts.

The more experienced of these women is Ellen, played by Charlotte Rampling, who is back for her sixth summer. (She calls the island "Hah-eetee.") Her black companion is young Legba, who had previously attended a woman named Brenda. After an absence of three years, Brenda (Karen Young) returns and seeks him out again. No serious rivalry erupts between Ellen and Brenda for Legba-- affections are not sufficiently fixed--but there are irritations and discontents. This portion of the film proceeds as a case study in exploitation, wealthy women utilizing native poverty for their satisfaction when and as long as it suits them--a glandular instance of global capitalism.

But the very first sequence suggests another theme. The majordomo of the hotel, Albert, is waiting at the airport for Brenda when a native woman approaches him and asks him to take her fifteen-year-old daughter--just to take her, to protect her from people who will probably soon kidnap the daughter after they murder the mother. Albert politely declines; and we move with Brenda into the beach story.

For a time--too long a time, in fact--that grave opening seems simply an odd way to approach the sexual exploits of the white women. Then the socialpolitical theme that was predicted in that opening begins to seep into the story. But it is murkily handled. What Cantet obviously intended is never quite realized. He clearly wanted to juxtapose the hedonism of the visiting women and the wretched state of native life, including the pampered Legba. The social irony is never justly realized. The effect is almost of a jigsaw puzzle that we are left to assemble.

Cantet is masterly with the hotel smoothness that excludes the reality just outside. He draws first-class acting from Rampling, for whom unconventional morality seems a habitat, and from Young as Brenda, who is liberating herself from the repressions of her past. If only Cantet and Robin Campillo (who based their screenplay on stories by Dany Laferriere) had balanced the sexual and political elements more acutely, the result could have been searing.

This article originally appeared in the July 31, 2006, issue of the magazine.

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