Thursday, September 24, 2009

Fashion Plate

Audrey Tautou as Coco Chanel in COCO BEFORE CHANEL (Photo: Chantal Thomine-Desmazures)

Coco Before Chanel
Directed by
Anne Fontaine
Written by Anne Fontaine & Camille Fontaine with Christopher Hampton & Jacques Fieschi, based on the book L’Irrégulière ou mon Itinéraire Chanel by Edmonde Charles-Roux
With Audrey Tautou, Alessandro Nivola, Benoit Poelvoorde, Emmanuelle Devos & Marie Gillain Released on September 23, 2009

Labeling a film a “conventional biopic” is not always a put-down. A case in point is Anne Fontaine’s Coco Before Chanel, which covers the early life of the legendary French designer Coco Chanel, from her childhood in an orphanage to her fledgling fashion career.

Fontaine’s films (among which Dry Cleaning and How I Killed My Father are the most memorable) dissect adult relationships—both platonic and sexual—with ready wit and credible psychological insight. Her last film, The Girl from Monaco, was an amusingly frivolous take on her usual themes, and now Coco Before Chanel places this talented director in doubly unchartered territory, telling a biographical story that’s also a costume drama.

But Fontaine has shrewdly achieved a no-brainer, which so many filmmakers forget: hire good actors and a talented technical crew to make a solidly entertaining yarn. She and her sister Camille—in collaboration with Christopher Hampton and Jacques Fieschi—“freely adapted” (according to the credits) a Chanel biography by Edmonde Charles-Roux.

Fontaine’s collaborators—cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne, editor Luc Barnier, production designer Olivier Radot, and costumer Catherine Leterrier—have splendidly realized a recreation of late 19th and early 20th century France, from the music hall in which Coco and sister Adrienne sing; the countryside chateaux where Coco meets the rich and famous as the mistress of racehorse owner Etienne Balsam; and the Normandy beach resort where she spends time with her first great love, Boy Capel. Strolling with the English businessman, she cynically appraises the fashion sense (or lack of it) of high society.

Still, the physical production framing Fontaine’s well-paced, minimally melodramatic gallop through Chanel’s formative years is merely the backdrop for the actors who contribute to Coco’s zestiness. Emmanuelle Devos is prone to overacting, but as the egotistical actress who takes Coco’s fashion advice and helps kick-start her career, she fits in snugly. Marie Gillain—who in a better world would be France’s biggest acting export—charmingly plays Coco’s sister Adrienne, her singing partner and sounding board. As the main men in Coco’s life, Benoit Poelvoorde (Etienne Balsan) and Alessandro Nivola (Boy Capel) perfectly complement each other, Poelvoorde as the mature businessman and Nivola the mercurial upstart who finances her first boutique.

But it‘s Audrey Tautou’s dazzling star turn as Coco that gives the movie its style and panache. Although Tautou is prettier than the real-life Chanel, she shares her severe, dark beauty—including a pair of luminously piercing eyes—and exudes the self-confidence and allure that made Coco irresistible to men and women alike.

Even acknowledging the built-in limitations of the genre (a fatal accident seems like a screenwriter’s contrivance, even though it really happened), Coco Before Chanel is, thanks to Tautou’s grace and Fontaine’s adherence to the designer’s own dictum that simplicity is best, is an exceptionally entertaining biopic.

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