20 October 2009

Sacred Feminine - Film Review: Coco avant Chanel

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single celebrity in possession of a good legend, must be in want of a biopic.  

Another a truth that may not be so universally acknowledged is that a successful biopic must dedicate itself to not so much showing the protaganist doing what made him famous, but rather showing why the protaganist arrived at the destination that made him famous.  One of the more fascinating biopics of the last decade -- albeit one whose subject is fictional -- is Christopher Nolan's 2005 Batman Begins.  Nolan grasped what separates the Batman origin myth from other comic heroes -- he's not an alien from another planet, he hasn't been exposed to massive radiation doses, nor is he the disgruntled victim of an ultra-secret government experiment.  No, he's just a child of privilege who suffers an unimaginable tragedy who then projects the pain borne of that trauma into devoting his life (and wealth) to the cause of striking fear into the hearts of predators who prey on the weak and defenseless.  Batman's superpower is his mortality; underneath the mask he is but Bruce Wayne.  Ergo, every scene of sequel The Dark Knight sans Heath Ledger descends into fuggy cartoonishness.

The filmmakers behind Coco avant Chanel, director Anne Fontaine co-wrote the script with her sister Camille, masterfully unfurl the why of Coco Chanel with muted detachment.  We don't see gamine Audrey Tautou performing the quintessential Coco Chanel posture -- overseeing her own fashion show with detailed intensity -- until the closing moments of the film.  Instead the film focuses on Chanel's early life adventures while quietly stitching the identity garment she would ultimately slip into.

After the prerequisite opening sequences of a miserable childhood (is it a coincidence that seemingly every great man and woman in history began life as an orphan, an abuse victim, a friendless loner, or hopelessly destitute?) we're introduced to Gabrielle Chanel busking in a seedy early-20th century French version of a nightclub/brothel.  After an uber-wealthy sexual suitor nicknames her Coco for the ditty she performs, Chanel instantly establishes herself as a headstrong individualist who spits at convention (and the men who perpetrate them).  

Tautou scowls, glares, and snaps at everyone around her, in this case conformist hedonistic Parisian bluebloods while criticizing their dresses, their hats, and their mores.  Shrewdly maneuvering herself into a high-class world doggedly devoted to exclusion, the film slowly consecrates Chanel as not simply the first fashion superstar, but the first woman of the 20th century.  From her refutation of corsets to her simple and dark livery, Chanel's philosophy was to accentuate femininity through adoption of masculine style.

Fontaine did such a wonderful job of establishing Chanel's revolutionary spirit that the second half of the film takes a most disturbing turn.  Suddenly, this beacon of feminist strength succumbs to a weakness that undoes all the goodwill she had earned.  Let's just say the nickname of the man she falls in love with is Boy. Yea...

Coco avant Chanel is a very likable film.  It draws you in, it makes you care about the characters, and it's technically proficient, but I suspect the lasting sourness I felt is the result of philistine studio bosses diluting a perfectly artistic film for the purpose of American marketability, for a French-speaking film this new world encroachment is surely an unpleasant surprise.  Sacrebleu! 

06 October 2009

unKindle: An Argument Against Digital Reading Devices

I love my fifth-generation iPod.  It's 30-gigs, black, named Othello.  I take it practically everywhere, often to the chagrin of my companions.  But their groans of protest matter little to me.  Othello has improved my quality of life dramatically.  Since it's acquisition, my bench-press weight has increased fantastically, no more suffering through Hall & Oates in the supermarket, and in the evenings, Al Green is a scroll away.  Of course there is a downside:  my driving record has endured a precipitous blow.

My point being that I'm decidedly not an anti-technology guy.  I dig my 21st century toys, and as I make clear above, I fetishise my digital music player.  That said, I am impassionedly against digital readers of any kind (at least for those with better than 20/200 eyesight).  Devices such as Amazon Kindle represent the dark side of technological advance.  Eviscerating the romance from the loins of literature is something I will never quietly let slide.  Amazon Kindle is an abomination.

A quick story.  I attended a book festival recently.  Forget the "featured author readings" or the gratuitous literary wares; I go for the rare/used book flea market.  There are few more satisfying experiences than digging through the sandpit of Emeril Lagasse cookbooks, Tony Robbins motivational tomes, and twenty editions of The Devil Wears Prada to find buried underneath a true pearl.  In this particular case, it was a hardcover edition Elbert Hubbard's Little Journeys to the Homes of English Authors:  Robert Burns.  

The pages are as thick as impecunious wedding invitations, the binding smells of the 19th century.  It contains no publication date but research revealed that Hubbard perished on the LusitaniaAt the latest, this book's origins coincide with my late grandmother's birth.  Who knows whose hands this book has passed through, what history it's seen.  The imagination trembles.  And now, in 2009, the book is mine (for an outrageous $2) to possess into posterity.  How can Amazon Kindle ever stand up to that?  It doesn't, it can't, it won't.  Thank goodness!

I leave with you with the first page of Little Journeys:  Robert Burns:

The business of Robert Burns was love-making.

All love is good, but some kinds of love are better than others. Through Burns' penchant for falling in love we have his songs.  A Burns bibliography is simply a record of love affairs, and the spasms of repentance that followed his lapses are made manifest in religious verse.

Poetry is the very earliest form of literature, and is the natural expression of a person in love; and I suppose we might as well admit the fact at once, that without love there would be no poetry.

Poetry is the bill and coo of sex.  All poets are lovers, and all lovers, either actual or potential, are poets.  Potential poets are the people who read poetry; and so without lovers the poet would never have a market for his wares.