Saturday, September 26, 2009

Movie with Abe: Coco Before Chanel

Coco Before Chanel
Directed by Anne Fontaine
Released September 25, 2009

What any good biopic needs to really distinguish itself is a compelling story that makes the central character’s life worth making into a movie. Originality is ideally key, but then again, the source material isn’t exactly editable, and often some stories look and sound just like others. In the case of Coco Chanel, her path from poor roots to worldwide fashion designer is an intriguing tale, but the movie chooses to focus only on her adventures and exploits before achieving fame and glory. It’s an interesting discourse that brings to mind recent films like “Bright Star” and “The Duchess,” but it’s important to remember that this is, after all, Coco’s true story.

The film is most comparable with a recent French hit, the Oscar-winning “La Vie en Rose.” Both are the stories of prominent French cultural icons that rose from humble beginnings to achieve renowned celebrity. The most striking similarity is the complete immersion into their lead roles by actresses Marion Cotillard and Audrey Tautou, respectively. Cotillard picked up an Oscar for her performance, and Tautou’s commitment to her role is similarly commendable. Tautou’s previous credits include fabulously optimistic and energetic portrayals in “Amélie” and “A Very Long Engagement,” and her utter scorn for the world around her as Coco is jarring to see. Playing against type, however, works for Tautou, and she turns in a muted but still lively performance. Her supporting cast is wonderful, particularly the effortlessly charming Alessandro Nivola as her British lover Boy.

It’s very interesting to see the young Coco, at first a destitute bar singer, overcome societal conventions and achieve success in a field most women of the time would never have even dreamed of entering. Unfortunately, the movie stops once Coco finally finds herself free to work as she pleases and skips past any of Chanel’s bright career. It’s all in the title – the film doesn’t claim to show Coco’s life anytime while she was trendsetter Chanel – and therefore the build-up to what might have been an equally fascinating story results in a somewhat expected letdown. It’s a stunningly-decorated and carefully-prepared period piece, but Coco’s own sense of redemption once she finally breaks through suggests that there’s more to say, yet the film doesn’t cover any of that. It’s still interesting in its own right, but the lack of a satisfying, success-filled third act makes it difficult to wholly separate from those other biopics.


Read about the making of “Coco Before Chanel” in my roundtable feature story.

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