Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci, Emily Blunt
Dir. David Frankel
I thought I’d written a review of this film, but having watched it again the other night I realise I hadn’t. Which is a good thing because it means I can jump on my cinematic hobby horse: inverted morality.
What I mean by that is when directors and writers get their ethical knickers in a twist. A recent example being Man of Steel and its hero worship of a man who is the son of an elite family of fascist eugenicists and planet destroyers.
The Devil Wears Prada doesn’t get it quite so spectacularly wrong, but it comes close. In the film, Andy (Ann Hathaway) chooses some journalistic work experience in the office of Runway magazine, the world’s leading fashion mag, and the assistant to the assistant of chief editor, the fearsome Miranda Priestley. (An incredible performance from Meryl Streep.)
It’s easy to think the film makers thought the fashion industry would be an easy target with its narcissism, detachment from the real world and exploitation all in the name of haute couture. (And at this point, the Devil Wears Prada is a book allegedly based on American Vogue and its editor Anna Wintour. The writer’s intentions may not necessarily be the same as the film makers’ intentions.)
But the big mistake the film makes is that it portrays Andy’s peers equally as vacuous and boring as the automatons at Runway magazine. One of these friends is a photographer who hosts her own soiree as pretentious as any catwalk event. A second friend knows too much about the fashion industry for his own good, and falls into that hypocritical category of critic who can’t criticise without taking an interest in what he’s criticising.
And then there’s Andy’s partner Nate. A man so full of his own cheese he can’t accept the career opportunity Runway is providing to Andy . . . for one year. Nate is a chef, and if there is one industry as fatuous and pompous as haute couture it’s haute cuisine. At the end when he gets a break in Boston he expects Andy to drop everything in New York and follow him in his new life. Boring and neanderthal.
Contrast these hypocrites with the maniacs portrayed at Runway, with their sense of purpose, their endless energy, their raison d’etre. It may all be for something as frivolous as shoes and frocks, but the hypocrisy of Andy’s peer group is summed up with savage accuracy by Priestley, when Andy scoffs at the similarity of two turquoise belts. The monologue is worth quoting in full:
You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet… and you select… I don’t know… that lumpy blue sweater, for instance… because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue. It’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact… that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent… wasn’t it… who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores… and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner… where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars… and countless jobs… and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry… when, in fact… you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room… from a pile of stuff.
So, we may well look at the fashion industry with disgust, but we all buy into it; an inconvenient fact the makers of The Devil Wears Prada overlook, even though the condemnation is included in their own script! Smugness is such an ugly human trait. Add ignorance to it and you have a recipe for unintended consequences.