Thursday, September 24, 2009

A fine collaboration: Fontaine & Tautou do COCO BEFORE CHANEL

How very smart of the French "money" people to have put a movie about Coco Chanel into the hands of writer/
director Anne Fontaine -- and for Ms Fontaine to have put Chanel herself into the hands of actress Audrey Tautou. Neither would have been TrustMovies' initial (or even secondary) choice, but now that he's seen the result, gratitude is his major response.

Never anything close to what we Americans might call main-
stream, Fontaine (shown, right) is a personal filmmaker (aren't most of the French?) who goes her own way, often taking some major French talent along with her -- Fanny Ardant, Gérard Depardieu, Charles Berling, Miou-Miou, Emmanuelle Béart, Fabrice Luchini , Roschdy Zem-- in films like The Girl from Monaco, Dry Cleaning and Nathalie. Instead of filling this bio-pic with the usual "turning point" moments that make for multitudinous climaxes and soap opera shenanigans, Fontaine slips these as small details into her scenario with enough grace and subtlety that it's more when we think back on the film than when we are watching that we're even aware of them.

Don't get me wrong: COCO BEFORE CHANEL offers plenty of eye-candy, starting with Ms Tautou, plus the historical trappings that any decent biographical film that begins a century ago must possess. But the writer/director doesn't simply stop there. More interested in the why and the how of things than the what, her exploration of Chanel's formative years -- beginning with her and her sister being dropped off at an orphanage by a man who seems suspiciously like the girls' father yet refuses to look at them -- is full of telling detail that never shouts. (I have to admit I could have done with a shout now and again, because, by the film's end, I did want to feel a bit more "shaken." The pacing of the film is a little too similar throughout.) On balance, however, I'm happy to accept the generous gift Fontaine has given us: a movie that helps us understand how and why this young woman we see becomes the single, true acknowledged-and-deserved arbiter of style for the past hundred years.

Fontaine manages this via an understanding of society, fashion, mores, and psychology -- then and now-- and finally by the casting of Ms Tatou. The New Yorker's Anthony Lane may not be able to get over the Tautou of Amelie, but I suspect most viewers will marvel at the enormous strength and will the actress brings to the role. Watch her face, just as Fontaine makes certain the camera does, in the moment after a disappointment has occurred (there are a number of these throughout the film). It's all here, as Tautou/Chanel registers what has happened and steels herself with yet another drop of resolve. You see her growing stronger and simultaneously closing an emotional door. And Tautou (above, left) manages this so well. Her great beauty (Chanel herself was no piker in that department -- see above, right -- but did not possess Audrey's amazing saucer eyes) is smartly played down, in favor of other parts of the character: intelligence, perseverance and especially that quick wit.

Fontaine has long been drawn to relationships and this movie is no different. The two men with whom Chanel is most involved make a lovely pair of opposites: Balsan, rich, decadent but, in his way, kind (played by the wonderful Benoît Poelvoorde, above) and "Boy" Capel, young, handsome and smart-with-money (played by the intelligent "looker" Alessandro Nivola, shown below). Both men use Chanel but offer much in return. How she makes use of both of them is part of the charm and enjoyment the movie offers. As for fashion, we see bits of pieces of it as the film moves along and Coco comes into her own sense of style. Fontaine saves her real coup -- a stunning staircase procession of fashions and time frames -- for the finale.

Coco Before Chanel begins its theatrical run via Sony Pictures Classics, on Friday, September 25, in New York and Los Angeles. A complete listing of release dates and cities and theatres can be found here.

All photos are from the film, except for
Ms Fontaine's, by Jeff Vespa,
and Chanel's, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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