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! 

1 comment:

  1. Only you would take a comic book movie and argue it as the ideal representation of a bio flick. Pretty amazing. Your review makes this movie seem like the type of woman that breaks your heart.