Saturday, March 26, 2011

Two Missed Cocos.

I missed both of these rom-fem biopics in the theater setting. Released almost exactly a year apart, I remember that I wanted to see them but couldn't fix my schedule to get to either one.

Coco Before Chanel, which made its theatrical run two years ago, is about Coco Chanel's life from maybe her late teens into her early thirties. It is an excellent setup for the second film, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, a film which had its theatrical run last summer, about a later more ordered time in Chanel's life.

I recently caught the DVDs within a few days of each other, and found that seeing them chronologically -- which applies to the release dates as well as the timeline of Chanel's life -- is best. The second film is far more compelling artistically, strengthening my theory about watching the two in this way: they build from a somewhat average but entertaining first film to an incredible climax in the wonderfully rendered latter film, the two time periods of Chanel's life bleeding together like you're taking in a four-hour film or a mini-series.

This is going to be short and sweet, but I wanted to put the experience down now so I can fondly look back on it later. Here are just a few paragraphs on each:

Coco Before Chanel. (2009) Anne Fontaine

Here we have Audrey Tautou (whom I adore) as the ambitious Coco Chanel, beginning in a run down orphanage as a forgotten little girl and quickly making a living as a music hall chanteuse. She's in business with her sister -- the two have several numbers they've put together -- but we immediately see that it's all about survival. The gigs are less about the singing and more about a demeaning and sexist meat market. Approached by men constantly, Coco points to the whores on the other side of the bar. She's in survival mode but she's not going to stoop to that level. The irony being that later, when she ends up a rich mistress, it isn't very different from a whore's existence except for a lavish lifestyle living with a single wealthy john.

As a mistress Coco gets to live in a mansion, though she's initially tucked away in a room upstairs to avoid any visiting socialites. Too empowered to be hidden for long, she meets the wealthiest in a burgeoning capitalist culture making hats for rich women and working on their outfits for social gatherings. This is how her talent fully emerges; she goes from being a commodity to filling consumerist desires. It's the beginning of a fashion empire originally launched from a room shamefully hidden away in the house of one who would buy her affections. The man, who lacks generosity and compassion, she grows to detest and later pity. She leaves him for her first real love, Boy, who is smitten by her unbroken nature and overpowering gaze.

She's a character a viewer can begin to hope for, and root for. She will find love, but then she'll quietly obsess over it, lose it, and make a move toward business where she'll trade in any emotional hopes for thriving financially. Her change sets us up for the second film where she is colder, calloused, totally financially independent, and able to exploit whoever or whatever she wants.

This is a good if not great film that has a few moments of emotional tug. When you see what Chanel went through for the nature of survival, it's sometimes a bit sad to watch. Tautou retains her typical ability of lifting the material to meet her acting abilities, but I'd recommend Coco Before Chanel only if you're planning to see both films.

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky. (2010) Jan Kounen

There are a couple of reasons I really fell in love with this film, which in moments is a stylistic rush, at other times downright sexy.

In the first twenty minutes a life-long historical bewilderment I've had is relayed with incredible force. It's an orchestral concert, with Chanel in the audience. The date is May 29, 1913. If you're a classical music aficionado you recognize this as the date of the riots over the premier of "The Rite of Spring," at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris.

Stravinski's music drew unsuspecting listeners into a fury. They simply weren't ready for the atonality of this art. Chanel, cutting edge in the fashion industry and now a sophisticated urban bourgeoise, immediately finds in Stravinski's music a force to connect with. Here are two people ahead of their time, mindful of the arts and driven by their creative passion. Only their egos are bigger than their passion, and no moral or marriage will keep them apart.

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky turns into a smoldering story of raw unemotional sexuality, unhinging the erotic nature of these otherwise restrained characters (think: Henry and June or The Lover). Anna Mouglalis is a completely different Coco than Audrey Tautou -- rightfully so, since it's a person at a different stage in her life. (Don't most of us completely change every ten or fifteen years?) Whatever she once was, whatever she is now, captured in this film is an onscreen siren, one which any man would simultaneously fear, obsess over and ache for. I haven't seen a spitfire woman so smoking red-hot since Giovanna Mezzogiorno in the first half of Vincere.

The film is a visual delight filled with greater splashes of nuance than Coco Before Chanel. It captures Chanel's household, where the two end up living -- along with Stravinsky's wife and children -- with visual passion and a tension that matches the affair. Coco's cool and collected nature is coldly amazing, but from the first film we've seen all the roughened stages setting this callousness in place; she builds an empire on the concepts of female empowerment and beauty but closes herself behind walls of accumulated power, commodities, and isolation.

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