Thursday, November 5, 2009

Coco Before Chanel: Dress rehearsal

Coco Before Chanel (2009) • View trailer for Coco Before Chanel
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.5.09
Buy DVD: Coco Before Chanel• Buy Blu-Ray: Coco Before Chanel [Blu-ray]

Modern women vexed by the gender divide should make a point to see Coco Before Chanel, just to be reminded how much worse life was a single century ago.

This autumn season has brought us biographical studies of two extremely impressive women — Amelia Earhart and Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel  in flawed films that nonetheless boast strong work from their respective lead actresses.
Having insisted on accompanying her lover and his condescending, aristocratic
friends to the racetrack, Gabrielle (Audrey Tautou, center) is delighted to bump
into her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain, right), who is beginning to realize
that her lover probably never will marry her.

The results, in both cases, are frustrating: Just as Hilary Swank's resolute and chameleon-like performance as Earhart couldn't rise above that film's flat execution, Audrey Tautou's equally persuasive interpretation of Chanel can't disguise director Anne Fontaine's leaden pacing in Coco before Chanel.

This film is so slow, that at times it appears to stop.

That's ridiculous, given real-life events that read like something out of Charles Dickens. Not even David Copperfield rose as high, given his humble origins, as the little orphan girl who grew up to become the very emblem of 20th century womanhood.

I don't believe the screenplay is at fault, although Fontaine and collaborator Camille Fontaine (no relation, believe it or not) should have encouraged co-scripter Christopher Hampton to insert more of the snarky tone he brought to his adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons.

No, the problem is dull, listless direction: boring camera angles, tedious two-shots and a sloppy approach toward structure. Anne Fontaine simply doesn't present this story with any degree of passion ... which is pretty ironic, considering the passionate nature of Chanel herself.

Things begin with a brief prologue in the late 19th century, as a stoic man in a horse-drawn carriage abandons his two young daughters at a convent orphanage. His wife having died, he has no reason to keep the girls around. Despite the coldness of this act, young Gabrielle waits in vain every Sunday, hoping for a visit from the father who dumped her.

When next we see Gabrielle (now played by Tautou) and her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain), they've matured into young women who work as seamstresses in a tailor's shop by day, and by night sing mildly saucy little ditties in the crowded, smoke-filled confines of local cafés. (The miraculous fact that these two sisters have been able to stay together passes without comment.)

One of these songs, "Coco," gives Gabrielle the nickname that would follow her through life.

Adrienne seems to accept her lot in life, which under the best of circumstances means becoming the mistress of a married French soldier. Indeed, the female "entertainers" in this environment seem interchangeable with the free-floating prostitutes.

Gabrielle, in great contrast, has both spirit and impertinence; she thinks nothing of back-talking the café's wealthier patrons, and Tautou does so with a marvelously icy and condescending tone. One gets the impression that Gabrielle enjoys the occasional romp but prefers to leave her options open, while Adrienne has set her sights on a more "permanent" arrangement with a young baron.

Given her insolence, Gabrielle probably would have come to a bad end, had she not been fortunate enough to catch the eye of rich racehorse owner Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde). Regarding her with the same sort of interest he might pay to an unbroken colt, Etienne makes repeated overtures that are curtly rebuffed.

But when circumstances finally become a bit dire for her, Gabrielle boldly takes advantage of his fixation and arrives, unannounced, at his country estate.

Good manners prompt him to let her stay, but only for a few days. These stretch into weeks and months: possibly even years, although it's difficult to tell, given Fontaine's refusal to mark the proper passage of time.

Although idyllic in many respects, life with ƒtienne is far from ideal; he refuses to let Gabrielle mingle with his "real" (read: high society) friends, some of whom he's clearly shagging on the side. Gabrielle therefore feels no guilt when she, in turn, is attracted to the wealthy Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola).

"Can I borrow her for a few days?" Arthur eventually asks Etienne, as if the two men are discussing a garden tool. Etienne shrugs and agrees.

So continental. So French.

So ... condescending.

(One cannot be surprised to learn that Coco Chanel never married. Why should she, during an era when husbands flaunted their courtesans with impunity? Small wonder her eventually famous clothing line bore such a strong masculine element: the ultimate revenge.)

During her stay at Etienne's estate  filming was done at the impressive 18th century chateau of Millemont in the Yvelines  Gabrielle grows ever bolder with her sartorial choices. At first she wears Etienne's clothes as a sort of stubborn vindictiveness, but she soon begins to modify shirts, pants and hats in a manner that we quickly recognize. (Stunning, really, how ubiquitous the Coco Chanel style became and remains.)

Tautou deftly conveys this investigative, exploratory process, her watchful and keenly intelligent eyes captivated by a swatch of drapery here, a length of fisherman's netting there. She turns the creative process into a living, vibrant part of Gabrielle's life; it's a shame Fontaine couldn't design her film in a similarly vibrant manner.

Occasional historical liberties are taken. The famous striped mariner's sweater than Chanel wore in the 1930s appears much earlier in this film's chronology, which progresses no farther (I'm guessing here) than the early 1920s and Gabrielle's first successful fashion show. That's sufficient, given this film's title: Coco before Chanel.

Her lapses of tone and pacing notwithstanding, Fontaine does have a surer hand with her actors. She coaxes a marvelously subtle performance from Poelvoorde, at first little more than a pompous, unattractive little man bewildered by this colt he lacks the skill to tame. The transition comes slowly and delicately; we suddenly realize that Etienne has, to quote My Fair Lady, grown accustomed to Gabrielle's face.

More to the point, he realizes, looking back to Gabrielle's arrival at his estate, that he never really had any control over her; we see this dawning awareness on Poelvoorde's face, along with the sad realization that the situation hasn't changed.

Adrienne is a figure of pity: just naive enough not to realize, like "the other women" all over the world, that she'll never wind up with a ring on her finger. And yet Gillain shades her part just enough to display the gentler, kinder characteristics that are more obvious by their absence in Gabrielle. We understand why the sisters remain close: They are better together, as a unit, than they are apart.

Needless to say, costume designer Catherine Leterrier has a wonderful time "helping" Tautou's Gabrielle "discover" all her signature outfits. Unfortunately, we get little sense of how Gabrielle's designs eventually swept all of France, and then the rest of Europe and North America. The suggestion here is that a single stage actress  one of Etienne's former lovers  gave Gabrielle's couture all the exposure it needed.

That seems ... unlikely.

This film needed a director as bold and audacious as its subject. Fontaine frequently strays much too far from that tone, instead settling for the sort of dreary melodrama that would be more at home in an adaptation of Wuthering Heights.

Amelia Earhart deserved better than director Mira Nair's Amelia, and Coco Chanel deserved far better than Fontaine's work here ... which is odd.

You'd think a Luxembourg-born director  and a woman, at that  would have gotten it right.

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