Saturday, November 7, 2009

Coco Before Chanel (2009) – Review

Coco Before Chanel is a story of a woman finding her place in the world – orphan to icon. The film focuses on the life of Coco from her life singing in a bar by night, seamstress by day, to her strange relationship with what could be called her benefactor to her brief first love affair, all steps leading to her discovery of self, that she had it within to be strong and different and succeed. It is the story of an independent woman that took charge, when in France at the time, it was not common. However, the main flaw that hampers the film greatly is a poor script. One cannot help but feel that what happens next in Coco’s life, as the credits roll, would be a far more interesting story than the one just seen. While there are certainly elements necessary to telling the story of her growth are present, the film, as is, would work much better as chapter one in a miniseries than a standalone film. The film’s most engaging moments involve the discovery of fashion by Coco (her style evolving), best exemplified in the scene of her dancing in the casino in her stunning black dress surrounded by a sea of white lace and soon to be outdated extravagance. Despite the hardships she faced within the story, she does not overcome meaningful obstacles, and thus there is never a strong connection formed with the audience. The film works better as a lecture of the early years than as a dialog between film and audience allowing for the audience to be engaged and take stock in the characters and outcomes. What seems to be the gravest obstacle in Coco’s life concludes the film, glazed over with little emphasis, the audience does not see the triumph rather it is inferred with what Coco goes on to become. But the audience needs to see the triumph, separating history channel special and potent cinematic drama. Director Anne Fontaine shot the film to be quite dreary, maybe as a reflection of the inner turmoil within Coco, there is no much color at times, and the lighting (or lack thereof) leaves the film feeling dark. Her camera is clunky and awkward at times too. And yet, at other times, again looking at the casino scene, she masterfully engages with her camera. She also has a talent for capturing the subtleties of a performance, which was particularly important in this film as the three main actors gave very real, restrained performances living in subtext – most of the honest dialog was unspoken. Audrey Tautou continues with every performance to be the center of the screen; she draws attention with her eyes and smile. Here, she keeps a lot inside, and yet the audience can feel for her. In a script with not too much to do, she still stands out and delivers a fine performance. Benoit Poelvoorde and Alessandro Nivola are also both good in their respective roles. With Tautou’s performance, the film is also highlighted by a moving score from Alexandre Desplat. His piece over the final scene is very beautiful and one of the best of the year. Coco Before Chanel works well in its telling of the cultivation and eventual proliferation of an icon, though it works more as a biography than compelling cinema. 6/10

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