Monday, 13 July 2009

Coco Before Chanel (2009)

We went to a preview showing of this French-language flick starring the ever- gamine Audrey Tautou as the young Coco Chanel, which concentrated on the years leading up to her success as a couturier. It goes to prove that the French can be every bit as careful as a Merchant-Ivory team in producing a heritage film with the relevant period evoked in loving and faithful detail and beautifully photographed. It also proves that such movies can also be ever so slow and occasionally tedious.

Apart from the wonderful production values, what saves this film is the high standard of the acting. We follow Coco in the years when she and her sister leave the orphanage where they were dumped by their father after their mother's death, through their early years as seamstresses and would-be music-hall stars, through to her sister's romance with a Baron who loves her but who is not prepared to marry her, and Coco's involvement with a boorish but moneyed landowner played by the excellent Benoit Poelvoorde (who will always be the serial killer from "Man Bites Dog" to me). Under his protection -- he can't quite get her to leave his estate -- she develops her own simple and slightly masculine sense of style, proves an amusing diversion for his aristocratic houseguests, and manages to fall in love with a visiting Englishman, played by the American actor Alessandro Nivola speaking excellent French.

What is missing, however, is any sense of time. We know that Coco left her orphange in the early years of the 20th Century, but the events which actually occurred right up to about 1919 have been condensed into what seems a shorter time frame and there is no allowance, except for a comment in passing, for World War I. And while Tautou and Nivola have great chemistry, the development of their doomed romance (he is about to marry a wealthy Englishwoman) and his helping her to launch her own salon seem to take forever. There is shot after shot of her carefully trimming hats and cutting fabric. Also, while Tautou is probably marginally too old to play the very young Coco, she does not appear to age at all during the telling; even the coda showing one of her much later fashion shows depicts her as unchanged. Apart from creating a fashion line which remains classic to this day, perhaps she also discovered the secret of eternal youth!
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