Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Cut with Care

I usually tell people that outfits and scenery are the only thing I care about in movies. I'm lying. Beautiful surfaces are the bare minimum, after which I start to make other demands, or perhaps only in the case of  a carefully cropped biopic like Coco Before Chanel. It's an uncomplicated movie about the early life of the very complicated Coco Chanel. I was taken in by the beauty of the film, and the engaging acting, and all the dresses (even the ones Coco hated) but it was hard not to feel uncomfortable with a movie that focused so heavily on the men in her life.

The movie is a bit of a fairytale romance where rich men fight (politely) over a plucky orphan. She has her millionaire lover Etienne Balsan, and her other lover Boy Capel, English friend and business associate of Balsan, who gives Chanel the money she needs to go into the garment business. Capel is presented as the love of her life, and I don't know if he was or not, but Chanel was famous for being a ruthless hard ass, so seeing her portrayed as a quivering romantic heroine is weird, though I can almost buy it. Doesn't everyone have a heart? Audrey Tautou plays her with real emotional layering, but I was looking for moral layers.

And more clothes. My friend Carrie and I both definitely wanted to see more of the designer's celebrated fashions. You really only catch a glimpse of them at the end. It is Coco Before Chanel, but they could have thrown us a scrap or two. In the end, this an airbrushed image best suited for people who are already familiar with Chanel's life of fraternizing with Nazis and paying her employees starvation wages, but willing to forget the details for a couple of hours. This picture of a life of disappointment and bittersweet triumph does make it easier to understand her well-known bad behavior. In fact, it succeeds in making me want to read more about her and see all her other biopics.

But I have written more than I meant to. It would have been better just to post a bunch of pictures of Audrey Tautou (So many outfits!) along with this Village Voice review by Melissa Anderson, which mentions Judith Thurman's great writing about Chanel.

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