Coco Avant Chanelby Libby Allen / 27.08.2009
I feel I have to offer immediate warning to those gals dying for a gals night out with this film, glam get-ups in place and cocktails for after. It will not make suitable warm-up to little black dresses and gal talk; it will not offer much entertainment, I suppose, for gals who call other gals ‘gals’. This is not a glamour feature, but rather an uncomfortable film, more examination of character than chronicle of beauty. In fact, response to Coco Avant Chanel on the international circuit has, so far, been pretty annoying. Claimed immediately and mistakenly by the fashionista brigade as some sort of Sex and the City period piece; a salute to decadence and style, it seems to be falling short of expectation, disappointing in its refusal to offer the Chanel powerhouse most would like to see. Instead, director Anne Fontaine offers a difficult film, one in line with the trend of biopics so popular over the last period, where what falls short in story and character we must accept, because it is truth, and when it plods, we must plod along with it because we know and trust the outcome: Chanel will turn out alright, she will redefine style, everything will be fine in the land of fashion. But, it isn’t an easy 105 minutes reaching that point.
Opening on Chanel and her sister being carted through the French countryside to live in an orphanage run by nuns, we skip quickly over her childhood – her abandonment, optimism that her father will return for her, the fictions she constructs around the man when optimism is no longer enough and she refuses to acknowledge the truth of her beginnings. It’s the makings of a great and gritty woman; we get it. She moves from orphan seamstress to bawdy saloon singer to kept woman to mogul. These are vacuous leaps, over moments so contradictory in the woman’s character that we are left with nothing but loyalty to the bio feature to accept them.
And when the film does not work as it should, when the pace does not race as it ought to nor energy seep from the screen as we’d like, it seems that every element looks to Audrey Tautou for redemption. Ah, Audrey. Arthouse cinema’s little doe-eyed cupcake. This is her vehicle; calling on the whimsy and romance she almost redefined in Amelie, but going so much further. Tautou paints complexity in Chanel which I can’t imagine many actresses managing (thank God Keira Knightley, that buck-beaked lollipop, rejected the role.) She is at once pragmatic and desperate, so willing to betray herself, so ready to yell about freedom when she deals with corsets and style but so ghostly when it comes to the management of her own life.
Each point in the evolution of Chanel’s work- her fascination with androgyny, her frustration with perceptions of beauty- are traced as consequences to her life, and so the film does move through the grace of the clothes she made, bookmarking each experience with the genesis of a new style. The camera glosses too quickly over these moments, and at times, the film, too quickly over relationship dynamic so that while it carries a number of fine performances, the cast remains somehow arbitrary, serving only to throw more gravity at Tautou’s feet. But, support is support and this is how stories work.
So, sorry, gals, this may not be the ‘it’ film of the season. Do yourselves a favour and accept the title before you go – and you should, you should go; it is a largely wonderful film. Coco Before Chanel… just saying, in case you get all uppity when the piece ends where you want it to begin. If, in a final moment, you are taken more by a face laden with paradox than bright light and hosiery, you’ll understand Chanel just fine.