EYE ON EUROPE
THE COCO CHANEL
AUDREY TAUTOU in "COCO AVANT CHANEL"
There's a rush to make
the best 'Coco' movie
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
A boomlet in movies about Coco Chanel, the French fashion stylist, started a couple of years ago and is still steaming ahead, the next one due out later this year, Chanel and Stravinsky: The Secret Story chronicling her not-so-secret affair with composer Igor Stravinsky.
The pairing of these two characters and their fiery creative forces may top the others in whats being called a period of Chanelmania. Anna Mouglalis is Coco and Madds Mikkelson is Igor. Director is Jan Kounen.
But the leader thus far in the Chanel race is French actress Audrey Tautous portrayal of Ms. Chanels early years, Coco avant Chanel (Coco before Chanel), just released in France a few weeks ago. The script wisely differentiates itself from complete biopics by dealing only with Cocos formative years.
The film was so heavily promoted in France prior to release that it raised suspicions of a possible flop, and indeed a few early reviews called it too flat. I saw it last week and was happily surprised by the earthy story and the glorious cinematography. Tautous sensitive performance is matched by an exceptional Benoit Poelvoorde, who plays her protector and sometime-lover in this period.
Watching the seductive Audrey Tautou as the little seamstress who breaks into the mans world of fashion design, one quickly forgets the disaster of The Da Vinci Code in which Tautou tried to play agent Sophie Neveu opposite Tom Hanks.
In Coco, she is on familiar ground: a poor child negotiating the social strata of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She brings Coco Chanel to life first as a cabaret singer then as a kept woman in a grand chateau, and finally as an independent designer of ladies hats in Brittany.
Coco Chanels strong personality offers rich pickings for screenwriters at any stage of her life. She is known for such aphorisms as As long as you know men are children, you know everything. And Dont spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door.
as the young
She never married but was famous for a long string of love affairs. She lived in a private suite at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, where she died in 1971 at the age of 87. The House of Chanel remains a cornerstone of French fashion, and Coco is remembered for her suits, her jackets and Chanel No. 5 perfume--all still very much in style.
Chanel was indeed born out of wedlock in a poorhouse in 1883 although her parents later married and produced five siblings, two sisters and three brothers. Christened Gabrielle, she spent seven years in the care of an orphanage at Aubazine where she learned the trade of seamstress. At 18, she left to take up work for a local tailor, moonlighting as a cabaret singer. Her pet name Coco came from a famous song that was her specialty.
A French millionaire brought her home, spoiled her with gowns and jewels, and freed her to pursue a hobby of designing hats for the idle rich. Eventually she fell for Arthur Boy Capel, with whose backing she acquired a millinery shop in Brittany. Her hats were worn by celebrated French actresses, and her reputation spread to Paris. Her talents expanded to a wider range of womens wear.
Following World War I, she was introduced to young composer Stravinsky. Their affair is recounted in the Kounen film.
But the Tautou portrayal, directed by Anne Fontaine, stops well before Stravinsky enters her life. The early years are sufficiently gritty and dramatic to carry the film. Tautous striking features, tastefully exploited by the camera, gradually become hardened as Ms. Chanel moves from the easy provincial life to an intruder in the Paris fashion world that was then dominated by men.
The early years end with a catwalk that continues several minutes without dialogue. It is a culminating point in a story that we have by then taken on board as a heroic struggle by an extraordinary character.
©2009 by Michael Johnson. The illustrations are by the author. All rights reserved. This column first posted May 11, 2009.
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