Monday, January 25, 2010

Movie Review: Coco Avant Chanel

Coco Avant Chanel ***
Directed By:
Anne Fontaine.
Written By: Anne Fontaine & Camille Fontaine based on the book by Edmonde Charles-Roux.
Starring: Audrey Tautou (Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel), Benoît Poelvoorde (Etienne Balsan), Alessandro Nivola (Arthur 'Boy' Capel), Marie Gillain (Adrienne Chanel), Emmanuelle Devos (Emilienne d'Alençon).

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was a fascinating woman. Long before the sexual revolution, she wasn’t hung up on sexual morals (it helped that she was French), and she always had her own style. She didn’t care what people thought of her, she just went ahead and did her own thing. A poor orphan, she made her living as a seamstress and a bar singer, before falling in with a rich crowd of people, and not letting go, no matter what. She eventually became one of the biggest fashion icons of the 20th Century.

Anne Fontaine’s Coco Avant Chanel smartly concentrates on the years before Chanel was famous. After people become famous, their stories are all the same really. Its how they got there that is interesting, and Coco’s story is more fascinating than most.

We first see Coco as at an orphanage at the age of 10. Her mother has died, and her father has left her and her older sister Adrienne at the orphanage. Coco never gave up hope that he would back, but he never did. Flash forward 15 years, and now Coco (played by the radiant Audrey Tautou) is struggling to make ends meet with her sister. Adrienne has fallen in love with a Baron, who promises to marry her, so he whisks her away to his country estate, leaving Coco by herself. Through the baron, Coco has meet Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), another rich man with a country estate, so Coco just arrives at his door one day. Since he is attracted to her, he allows her to stay – for two days no more, but that turns into months. She slowly starts to meet his friends, who are fascinated by this woman. She is gorgeous, but she doesn’t follow the fashion trends of the day. She refuses to wear a corset, and most of her outfits look rather boyish. She says the less you show, the more you excite the men, who have to use their imagination to figure out what you are hiding.

The reason to see the movie is Audrey Tautou, who is as charming and beautiful as ever in the lead role. She has enormous, gorgeous dark eyes that are constantly showing us what is going on behind them. Coco Chanel was first and foremost a businesswoman, and she shows how he became the success she was – she used her assets to move up the ranks, slowly but surely. This really is not a romantic movie – they try to sell the notion that Chanel was actually in love with Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola), but I never quite bought it. She used Capel, just like she used Balsan before him. It may appear like Chanel is sleeping her way to the top, or that the men in her life were exploiting her, but I don’t think that was really the case. She used them as much as they used her – and no one ever really had any complaints as to what happened.

Written and directed by Anne Fontaine, who also made the underrated The Girl from Monaco this year, Coco Avant Chanel is a gorgeous movie. The art direction of the country estate is wonderful, but it’s really the costumes – mere copies of Chanel some will say – that are truly eye catching. Coco was right – our eyes are always drawn to Tautou in the movie, even when she is surrounded by gorgeous women wearing far less clothing. There is an enigma about Coco Chanel that we will probably never understand – which is what makes her so fascinating (this is only one of three movie made about her to debut in 2009!). Coco Avant Chanel is not your typical costume drama – and Audrey Tautou’s Coco is not your typical movie heroine.

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