Martha Nochimson reviews “The Devil Wears Prada”

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Telling a comic tale of a young woman’s career ambitions, a subject reserved almost exclusively for comedy in the Hollywood influenced media. “The Devil Wears Prada” adapts for the screen Lauren Weisberger’s novel of the same name about the forced detour of Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) into the world of high-fashion publishing.

Unable to find a job as a ‘legitimate’ journalist, Andy takes the only job she can get, at a fashion magazine called Runway, an experience modeled on Weisberger’s stint at Vogue. While on its staff, Andy does battle with her overbearing boss, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), modeled on Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, in what’s supposed to be a story of how Andy is almost seduced by the Satanic lure of Runway but succeeds in returning to her original (virtuous) love, investigative reporting. However, there’s a strong contrapuntal undertow in this movie. For better or for worse, this isn’t the story Weisberger told.

Among the best of the feminist commentators on Prada, Rebecca Traister of Salon.com, has duly noted the film’s alteration of the sympathy for Andy/Weisberger on which the novel was built. Traister reports the thrill that went through the audience around her during a striking speech, early in the film, in which Miranda castigates Andy for snickering while a solemn choice is made between two turquoise belts for a photo shoot. Andy finds the belts almost indistinguishable, and the audience is likely to agree. That is, until Miranda gives forth with a fire and brimstone speech (which isn’t in the book) delivered incongruously in her passive-aggressive, minimalist voice that stakes out her cultural power: everything America’and possibly the world,puts on its back comes into being as a result of decisions made in this office. I saw the same audience reaction around me during this crucial expository scene, in which the film, seemingly a pleasant ‘chick flick,’ complicates itself. On the most obvious level, Prada, like the book, defines Miranda as a tyrant over the frivolous and Andy as a socially conscious writer. In the film, however, once Miranda’s Miltonian ‘I would rather rule fashion than serve issues’ speech is in play, the film conjures up a competing undertone that whispers to our less conscious selves that Miranda, like the Satan of Paradise Lost, is the real hero of the piece, beside whom Andy with her earnest scrapbook of articles about unions and the like pales. This speech and a number of other features original to the film elevate Miranda from the book’s whining bitch to a figure of mythic power. The cinematic importance of the sermon over the turquoise belt is underscored by the fascination with which the film regards Andy’s near conversion to the cult of Miranda. As the film scopes her new look with excited interest, Andy’s decision to bring her make-up, hair and clothing into line with the ‘decisions made in this office’ covers her with stardust, an effect not at all consonant with the book’s much colder view. Something is afoot in Prada. Some have argued that it retools Hollywood’s usual demeaning portrait of women in the workplace. Alas, though, in the final analysis, the indomitable movie Miranda, Prada’s Satanissima, is less a return of the repressed, as in Milton’s epic, and more of a business-as-usual Hollywood smokescreen. The mythic changes effected in Miranda Priestly’s character by the film are part of an adaptation that gives Andy’s story a physical immediacy the print medium cannot and achieves a little gender latitude in the history of women-at-work films. But director David Frankel, a television series veteran, predictably misses an opportunity here to make a really progressive social comedy about the cultural forces that ironically have simultaneously both mystified and devalued our bodies. First let’s deal with ‘mythic’ and then move on to ‘progressive.’ Miranda enters the film belatedly, so that it is to her appearance, not Andy’s, that the exposition builds. Her introduction defines not only her narrative significance in the film but also her important contrast with the ordinary women who slave for her fashion empire. The main title shows a montage of young Runway women, and Andy who is about to join this club, getting ready for the day. brushing their teeth, eating breakfast, and the like. Miranda makes a grand entrance soon after as an atmospheric disturbance, much like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, that places her beyond ordinary life when her ‘munchkins’ prepare for her arrival by erasing the signs of mortality – like coffee cups and comfortable shoes -and imposing the ritual order demanded by the fashionista goddess, for example the precise placement on her desk of magazines and sparkling water. And after Miranda arrives, Streep, carrying off an almost impossible acting task, nails down the evocative prefiguration that something paranormal this way comes. As the film progresses, her stature grows. In one impressive scene, the wordless pursing of her lips in a labial close-up that has the force of an Olympian thunderclap drives a young designer to overhaul his entire collection, counter cost-effective though this drastic step may be. This is particularly evocative of Miranda’s mythic character. The usual cinematic captains of industry who dominate earthly playing fields in movies ‘do’ money; Miranda’s impact is not about the bottom line, but the force of instinct. It’s another kind of feminine mystique, of course not the one Betty Friedan demystifies, the one that kept women at home. Through Miranda, the film is a standard Hollywood exercise in mystification of the usual suspects: women’s bodies and women’s power. Where the Miranda in the novel is like everyone else in the competitive world but more so, Miranda in the film is feminine magic. Miranda’s Runway offices shine with a gleaming order, while outside the ordinary New York City streets are noisy, dirty, and chaotic, and the ordinary newsroom Andy winds up in after she leaves Miranda’s enchanted kingdom is but a dingy functional, factorylike place. Miranda’s Paris is the legendary ‘city of light’ with not a trace of real cultural problems, like burning cars and raging ‘guest workers.’ When Andy visits Miranda’s duplex for the first time, it is not just an after hours exploitation of an underpaid factotum, but the stuff of fairy tales. Delivering Miranda’s dry cleaning and the magazine’s layout book is a privilege for which Andy is given instructions that smack of a magical initiation: speak to no one, deposit the cleaning in the closet and the layout book on the table with the flowers; leave quickly. Simple enough in concept, but all is rendered cryptic when Andy encounters many doors and several flower bedecked tables. Two elfin, giggling children, Miranda’s twins, appear suddenly from above, uncannily whispering clues to her as she tries to figure out which door to open, and mischievously enticing her upstairs into Miranda’s forbidden living area. As in myths, Andy is punished with an impossible task for intruding on the inner sanctum of the gods; she must get for the twins (in one day yet) the manuscript for the unpublished, new Harry Potter book. Yes, it’s sadistic, as has been noted. But in the context of the magical clues, elves, and the lair of the uncanny Miranda, it’s more than that. It’s a slyly amusing version of what passes for the labors of Hercules in modern day America. And the human quester is a woman, who retrieves this version of the Golden Fleece handily and finds it exhilarating to be pushed to her limits and prevail! What is more, as with the gods in the old myths, or some of them, human spunk produces respect and protection from above. As Andy continues to clear Miranda’s hurdles, she becomes a favorite of the deity. It’s a heady brew for women with any impulse to achieve. No wonder we all (yes, me included) get a little high from the pas de deux between Miranda and Andy. So, is this film progressive? In part. Andy’s exercise of intelligence and pizzaz is certainly a long way from the studio-system comedies that asked the audience to collude in a mean-spirited joy as Katharine Hepburn was pulled down from one pedestal after another for showing brilliance and talent. At the end of Prada, the usual Hollywood wing clipping, still part of the working woman comedy, fails to materialize, at least in comparison with the denouement of Working Girl (1988), in which mean old executive Sigourney Weaver who has cunningly stolen her secretary’s ideas, gets a well deserved comeuppance, while secretary Melanie Griffith proves that female achievement depends not on the stolen ideas but on a well-packaged, eager to serve �bod for sin.� Similarly, in Life or Something Like It (2002), Stockard Channing as a Barbara Walters-like television star shows that female success is emotionally hollow at its core when she breaks into tears as up-and-coming newswoman Angelina Jolie questions her on camera about a lost love. And that same Angelina Jolie demonstrates that refusing to go to the top of one�s profession is a prerequisite for real feminine satisfaction when she literally decides not to take the elevator that would convey her up to the powers that be waiting to reward her for her public skewering of Stockard Channing. Rejoice! Angelina is taking the �mommy track� to fulfillment when she goes back to her hometown and the small television station there. Moreover, Prada eschews the hyperbolical pathos of such women�s films. Stockard Channing�s Deborah Connors in Life or Something Like It is last seen fading into the television studio shadows after her tearful revelation. In contrast, in the scene in which Miranda tells Andy that her third husband is leaving her, there is actually very little play given to the question of whether Miranda is emotionally �complete,� as there has been through Hollywood time immemorial in stories about powerful women. Andy wants to render Miranda pathetic as she offers girl-to-girl sympathy. But the film undercuts Andy�s emotionality when Miranda dries her tears, throws on a fabulous little something and takes Paris by storm. In the same spirit, Miranda ends the film on the way to her next big thing as she is given the exuberant last word in Prada: �Go!� she intones to her briefly hesitating chauffeur. And Andy? Sure, her crazy work schedule for Miranda put a dent in her relationship with her boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier) and there is some sturm und drang about that, but the film closes on a jaunty �so what?� note. Andy too is on her way professionally, speculating that she and Nate have only hit a bump in the road. All to the good. Yet Prada also takes as it gives. Andy is as boring as Miranda is compelling, except when she is with Miranda and her strange and wonderful acolytes, principally Nigel, Runway�s gay high priest, played with style and nuance by Stanley Tucci, and Christian Thompson (Simon Baker), a radiant dream lover�be still my heart�who lusts for Andy once she is transfigured. Christian (a name to be reckoned with in the realm of the purported Satan) is part of the film�s shift toward the miracles of Miranda, as her influence puts Andy in the way of his mad, hot, if not altogether sincere, love. Nigel, as the keeper of the keys to Miranda�s holy of holies, the Runway clothes room, is not only the lever that moves Andy�s personal presentation into line with Miranda�s gospel, he also is Miranda�s human interpreter, wittily explaining her protocosmic mysteries and daring us to deny her importance. Moreover, he doggedly continues to genuflect, even after Miranda, in an Olympian moment, protects her own powerbase by, without warning, snatching away the promotion she has promised him. He trusts that as the mills of Miranda grind, something good will come his way. In this, Nigel has undergone a particularly telling transformation from what he was in the novel. In the novel, as a part of what is shown as the bizarre world of fashion, he is literally indistinguishable from the over-the-top men in clown or Viking costumes who used to roam the New York subway shouting at the tops of their voices. In other words, print Nigel is consistent with Andy as the center of the story�s values; movie Nigel is not. David Carr has noted in The New York Times that �at its heart, the movie is a paen to the transformative powers of fashion.� Yes, but the most crucial aspect of this cinematic paen is that, in making Miranda into the key (diabolical) mover of the industry, like all good Hollywood slick flicks, it chooses to ignore the socio-economic elements of all cultural power. Let it here be noted that the novel, though not particularly incisive, has a solid socio-economic milieu. Print Miranda has ordinary, not elfin, children, and there is no magical test when Andy first visits Miranda�s apartment. Nor does print Miranda make an entrance like Percy Shelley�s wild, west wind. Miranda comes into the novel as a wheadling voice over the telephone and continues that way for some pages and chapters. And her sadism isn�t mitigated by its function as a potency that makes people better than they might ordinarily be. Thus when Andy literally says �Fuck you,� as she walks out on Miranda at the end of the book, her rage is motivated by a clear act of mental health. In contrast, there is a valid general sense that Andy lacks motivation when she quits Runway by tossing into a Paris fountain a cell phone on which Miranda is calling her. Many women, particularly, have explained the flatness of this gesture by commenting that nothing Andy endures in the film is very different from what people must face no matter what job they have. There is some truth to this comment�but it explains little in light of the film�s magic subtext. For that reason, I think the flatness of movie Andy�s gesture derives from its inappropriateness as a response to the deity the film portrays for us. While the book is lightweight but consistent, the film has a fatal inner contradiction, which manifests itself in the many ways it carefully sets up simultaneously an earnest message that fashion is a lot of hooey and a counter message that, in Miranda�s words, �everyone wants to be like us,� which has the force of emotional truth in Prada, the movie. Here Andy�s boring friends from outside the Runway world are as bedazzled by what Miranda has to offer as the fashionistas; note the scene in which most of them are driven to near ecstasy when Andy distributes as presents Miranda�s castoffs. Yes, Andy�s boyfriend, Nate, wants to make love to her whether she�s clad in grunge-wear or stylish lingerie. And he�s still attracted after she renders unto Miranda what belongs to Miranda as she gives back her cool wardrobe and washes off her killer face makeup, when she takes steps toward a �real� career as a journalist. But the film�s subtext continues to pulse with the message, �Go achieve and leave being truly lovely to obsessed women who serve (a very remarkable) Satan.� Back to that old puritanical American square one. In Prada good women aren�t gorgeous, economic systems disappear as the root causes of social phenomena, and the real stunners are in league with Satan. (Paging Gloria Graham vs. Donna Reed!) Because this time the mystification is in the form of the power of a magisterial woman, the film titillates liberated women�s fantasies as it displaces any understanding of the complexity of the nature/nurture debate about beauty, and what has made thin and young such a fetish in American life, about which Prada winks knowingly while kicking sand in our eyes. More than it seems to be, less than it could be, Prada actively distracts us from noticing that it has established a reality in which Andy is supposed to be cheered for opting to be less, as the film construes it. She doesn�t choose the �mommy track,� she chooses the �dowdy track.� Admittedly, if you read this movie against its grain, you can argue that Andy is beautiful before and after her Runway adventure. But what if the film hadn�t made that reading a form of resistance through its inability to find beauty in the streets of ordinary New York and through an adoring cinematographic rendering of Andy�s body only in her glamor phase? What if the cinematographic design of this film had taken a page from the Italian neorealists, portraying the absurdity of manufactured beauty through the comic eye of a Fellini and the affective unadorned beauty of Andy through the loving eye of early Rossellini? What if its reverse Cinderella transformation hadn�t bequeathed Anne Hathaway a second best body in a drab, good world brightened only by the sins of Prada and Jimmy Choo

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