Arts and Culture

'Coco Avant Chanel'

Biopic of fashion genius could have been taken out a little in the end.

By Steve Burgess 23 Oct 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess, ever stylish, writes about film every other Friday here at The Tyee.

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Audrey Tautou as famed designer Chanel

Coco Avant Chanel takes the same approach as the 2007 film Mongol. That movie told the story of Genghis Khan when he was still young and known by another name, stopping before he went off to pillage most of the known world. Coco Avant Chanel does the same for another world conqueror, a dark-haired gamine named Gabrielle who would also spread death and destruction, albeit only to the purveyors of tat and tasteless extravagance.

The woman who would revolutionize 20th century fashion was known to lie about her 19th century beginnings. She and her sister were left at an orphanage by her father after their mother's death. Later Gabrielle (Audrey Tautou) and her sister Adrienne (Marie Gillain) make their living as cafe singers. Their signature song is about a little dog named "Coco," a nickname that sticks to the reluctant Gabrielle -- she rewrites the story to say that Coco was her father's pet name for her.

At the cafe, Gabrielle is courted by Baron Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), who tries unsuccessfully to give her career a lift before bidding adieu and returning to his grand chateau. Lacking prospects, Gabrielle boldly shows up on his doorstep for a visit. After a couple of days Balsan calls her a carriage and bids her a fond farewell. She simply doesn't go. Straddling the line where determined meets shameless, Gabrielle simply makes herself a part of the Baron's world, teaching herself to ride and charming his friends with epigrams and straw hats. Soon she'll meet another member of the Baron's entourage, transplanted Englishman Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola), and find love. Also financial backing. She is determined.

Where'd you get that?

Coco Avant Chanel is easy on the eyes, fittingly. But its appeal depends on our foreknowledge of its central figure and who she will become, and the film leans too hard on that crutch. It's not always obvious why people are drawn to Tautou's moody version of Coco -- the trademark epigrams are in short supply here. More importantly, those hoping to gain insight into the future giant's revolutionary fashion esthetic will be dining on pretty thin gruel. It seems she just had it, that's all. Perhaps we should be grateful that the script does not have her being bitten by a radioactive bobbin. But a greater sense of Chanel's artistic development would be more interesting than the soap opera angles that dominate the movie -- especially in the final quarter, when the film becomes much more heavy-handed. Although I was unfamiliar with one particular plot development, I was able to write it down in my notes five minutes before it happened, thanks to a script that started hammering on the telegraph keys.

The film closes with the showing of Coco Chanel's first collection. Having seen only glimpses of her developing vision along the way, this final show is almost as big a shock to us as it must have been to Paris. It leaves one wishing that we could have seen some more about how she put it together and less about her love life.

Tailored to fit

Mongol ended with its young hero as a national unifier and happy family man. The filmmakers wisely avoided portraying the Genghis Khan who reportedly said: "The greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy, to drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears, and to gather into your bosom his wives and daughters."

Likewise, Coco Avant Chanel avoids the part of the story where Chanel gets cozy with Nazis in occupied Paris. We should all have access to that kind of story editing.  [Tyee]

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