Monthly Archives: September 2009

Ramchand Pakistani (Pakistan, 2008)

Nandita Das as Champa

Nandita Das as Champa

I very much enjoyed this film showing at Bradford’s Bite the Mango festival. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting and it raised questions about how it might be categorised. It’s officially a Pakistani film. Director Mehreen Jabbar left Pakistan for UCLA and returned to work in Pakistani television. This was her first feature with a story based on a real incident that was taken up by Mehreen’s father Javed who sold the idea to his daughter. The eventual screenplay was written  by Mohammad Ahmed, a well-known writer in Pakistani television.

The story focus on a Hindu family living in the Pakistani province of Sind close to the border with India. They are low-caste villagers attempting to scratch a living from the soil in a semi arid region. Ramchand, the 8 year-old boy in the family, accidentally crosses the border during a period of tension between India and Pakistan. He is held by two Indian border guards and when his father Shankar also crosses the border looking for him, he too is arrested. Father and son are then taken to a prison housing other Pakistanis similarly arrested and Champa, wife and mother, is left bewildered at home when the two don’t return. The story then follows what happens to Ramchand and Shankar in prison with inserts of life for Champa who is forced to work for the local landlord when she cannot pay her debts.

A parallel film?

If this was an Indian film, I would be tempted to call it a parallel film. I’m not sure if that is appropriate for a Pakistani production. In any case, this is not a Lollywood or Bollywood film, although the relatively simple story and the handling of scenes could I think appeal to a mainstream audience. As I watched the film, my first thoughts were how similar it seemed to much of the Iranian Cinema seen in the West (without perhaps the political and artistic sophistication of work by Kiarostami, Panahi or Makhmalbaf – though this is not to suggest that the film does not have great artistic merit) and also to aspects of Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988). According to the Press Pack available for download from the official website these were indeed the influences that Mehreen Jabbar has cited.

In some ways. Jabbar has acted like diaspora filmmakers such as Nair and Deepa Mehta. Wary of the pitfalls facing a first-time feature filmmaker in Pakistan (with the local industry largely in decline in Lahore, as far as I can tell) she drew on her American contacts to provide Key Heads of Department on the shoot and cobbled together the funding for the film from individuals and independent companies in Pakistan and the US. She also approached both Pakistani and Indian government agencies because of the delicacy of the subject matter and travelled to India to ensure authenticity in the large sets that were eventually built in Pakistan to represent the Indian prison.

As with most films from the sub-continent, whether popular or parallel, the music in the film is important. This included adaptations of several Pakistani folk songs and a score involving Indian composers and playback singers with post-production in Mumbai. The songs are used as accompaniment to the visual narrative rather than as performance numbers. With an American cinematographer and a general realist approach (apart from a couple of dream sequences) the film fits the parallel category.

Genre

In one sense, the film fits the cycle of ‘line of control’ films set on the border. However, unlike the Indian films that I have seen, the political aspect of the situation is not exploited and there is no propagandist intent in the film. The Indians in the film are generally represented fairly  and it is the ‘situation’ and its impact on civil and military administrations that is the villain.

More emphasis is placed on the story of Ramchand’s development through puberty. Over the course of the narrative he ages from 8 to 13 (and is (very well) played by two different young actors.

There is, of course, a ‘prison movie’ genre to consider and this is utilised in scenes dealing with the tedium of prison routines. These generic traits mean that the narrative seems familiar to the Western viewer. It also makes it more difficult to deal with the scenes back in Pakistan which seem to belong to another film. I wouldn’t agree, however, with reviewers who found that these dragged. The scenes are necessary for the realism of the story and I think that Nandita Das does an excellent job in conveying what poor Champa must have suffered.

Reception

The film seems to have been very well-received. The official website offers many reviews. Obviously these have been selected but the coverage on IMDB is also positive. The only real criticisms have come from Indians and Pakistanis complaining about the accents used by Pakistani actors playing Indians. But these seem to be contradictory in some cases. Not understanding Urdu or Hindi, I found the subtitles to be unhelpful sometimes when they weren’t held on screen long enough (and I’m a fast reader). I also missed the significance of most of the songs which weren’t translated. There were also some contrasting views on how Nandita Das handled her role. Most reviews were positive, but she has now played similar roles several times – in several languages. Her presence undoubtedly helped the film get screenings internationally. The rest of the cast were mainly experienced Pakistani TV actors.

I have seen reviews which suggest that the film is a difficult sell to popular audiences. This may well be true, but I can’t agree that it is a film filled with despair. Certainly there is a sense of despair in several scenes, but there is also plenty of fun, moments of joy and overall real hope and faith in the human spirit. I left the screening with a tear in my eye having become engaged with several ‘real’ characters. One of the highlights for me was the introduction of an intriguing character, an upper-caste young woman who is a senior officer in the prison. At first she treats Ramchand quite coldly as an ‘untouchable’, but he charms her and the two end up watching movies together on her TV set. I don’t want to give any other spoilers, so I’ll just recommend the film highly. It is available on a Region 0 DVD from various Indian suppliers.

Here’s the Urdu trailer for the film:

Spike Lee in London

BFI Southbank has a current season of films which places Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing in context. Lee has come over to speak during the season and he popped up in the crowd at Arsenal’s home game against Wigan on Saturday. I know he is a big sports fan. He’s been to Arsenal before and I’m sure he enjoyed the game.

We’ve also had interviews in the Independent and on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row in which he was interviewed by the urbane, liberal and generally calm and organised Mark Lawson. But Spike lived up to his billing and Lawson seemed quite nervous. It was a joy to hear someone who wasn’t interested in giving us platitudes and just spoke his mind and laughed a lot. I enjoyed the interview but was very disappointed by one of his comments. Asked about the films that were being shown alongside Do The Right Thing, Lee told us quite clearly that he hadn’t chosen the films – and he didn’t agree with showing all of them. Lawson suggested that the Paul Haggis film Crash might have been influenced by DTRT. Lee said that he didn’t want to be associated with Crash. I can understand that but I confess that I was dismayed when Lee came out with a tirade against Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine. Kassovitz should have acknowledged  his debt to DTRT he said. And then it transpired that Lee hadn’t seen the film. His friends had told him all about it and so he didn’t want to see it.

I guess this is vintage Spike Lee and we have to take the rough with the smooth. You should watch the film, Spike. It’s one of the best films of the 1990s and Kassovitz has spoken about his influences, including your own role model and fellow NYU graduate Jim Jarmusch as well as Martin Scorsese. He has spoken about the independent US features, including the ‘hood’ films that he admired – I think that Juice is perhaps closest to La haine. In many ways the young Kassovitz worked in similar ways to the young Spike Lee and although his subsequent career has been a disappointment, I think La haine still stands up. So, go on Spike, give it a go.

Spike Lee Joint 2: Miracle at St. Anna (US/Italy 2008)

santanna.jpg

The boy with Train and his head and Bishop

This is the only Spike Lee fiction feature that has been denied a UK release. Why? I’m not sure. Possibly because it died at the US Box Office where it failed to reach $10 million against a $45 million budget. But then you would expect Disney (Touchstone) to attempt to get something back on a DVD release in the UK at least. Perhaps one is scheduled, but it is already nearly a year since the US cinema release. IMDB seems out of date on the release schedule since Italy isn’t listed, but according to the Lumiere Database it attracted 191,000 admissions there – not great for an epic film like this. It doesn’t seem to have been released anywhere else in Western Europe (at least not in 2008).

More worrying perhaps is the general unwillingness of distributors to put out films with African-American cultural content in the UK. We are still waiting for the awards-laden The Great Debaters (US 2007), the second film directed by Denzel Washington. There is a form of institutional racism at play here, a kind of dismissal of the possibility that general audiences might find an African-American film interesting. I guess the distributors would point to the general negative reaction to Miracle at St. Anna from US viewers and reviewers, despite the minority view that this is a great film.

I don’t think it is a great film, but it is a film that I would urge anyone interested in representation issues and auteur filmmaking to watch. As is often the case, Roger Ebert gives one of the most sensible responses to the film when he suggests that all the flaws he sees in it, and possibly all the things he doesn’t really like, are evidence of Spike Lee’s vision, which he has maintained in the film in the face of potential front office objections:

“When you see one of his films, you’re seeing one of his films. And Miracle at St. Anna contains richness, anger, history, sentiment, fantasy, reality, violence and life. Maybe too much. Better than too little.”

I’ll go with that.

Outline (no spoilers)

The film is an adaptation, scripted by the author himself, of the novel with the same title by James McBride (published in 2002). The plot opens with an incident in New York in 1983 that sets up a mystery involving, among other things, a marble head that turns out to be a valuable artefact. The main narrative is set in Tuscany in December 1944 during the Allied push against the Germans. Black soldiers from the 92nd Division of the US Army, known as the ‘Buffalo Soldiers’, engage with a large German force near the Serchio River. Four men get detached from the American side and end up on the other side of the river. They rescue a young Italian boy – who bonds immediately with one of the soldiers whom he calls ‘a chocolate giant’ – and eventually find themselves in a mountain village from which the Germans have fled. Meanwhile, the local German commander is being berated by a senior officer and told that he must regroup his men and find both the local partisans who have been harrying the German forces and a German soldier who is missing and must be found. What happens in the ensuing confrontations between the four Americans, the villagers, the partisans and the Germans holds the key to the mystery in New York. The resolution does solve the mystery, but doesn’t perhaps ‘close’ all the narrative questions.

Commentary

The film is 160 minutes (although the closing credits last nearly 10 minutes) and it does feel long. The rigmarole of watching Region 1 DVDs forced me to watch the film in three parts. I think that if I had seen it in one sitting it would have flowed more as a narrative. In a way, I think I was least impressed with the opening and closing (mostly) New York-set scenes. The central narrative however, I found gripping. The ‘bookending’ of Second World War stories has become a convention of recent war films and to some extent it also links this film to Lee’s previous feature, Inside Man (2006) which also posed a mystery in New York that only made sense in terms of events from the 1930s. Lee has worked before with properties from other writers or with scripts written by strong authorial voices, so I’m not sure how much of the audience’s difficulties with the film come from the original story (which is a fiction based around a real incident). I read the book after I saw the film and in a way I’m glad I did it that way round as I enjoyed getting deeper into the narrative. I don’t believe that books are always ‘better’ than films – they are simply different as narratives.

The book isn’t actually very long, but it does have an awful lot of narrative detail. Although the film script more or less sticks to the book’s central narrative, there are aspects that are cut out since they are easily described in a novel, but would be difficult to include in a film narrative lasting less than three hours. This is inevitable – the book can include more detail, but it doesn’t press the emotional triggers as well as the film for a popular audience. Partly this means we learn less about the four central characters in the film than we do in the book. There is also, I think, less possibility of  exploring the various fantasy or ‘spiritual’ elements of the novel – whether ‘real’ or imagined. More intriguingly, the film simplifies some of the subtleties in the depiction of the Buffalo Soldiers – perhaps McBride thought that audiences simply wouldn’t believe what actually happened in the US Army in Italy? Just to give one example, the leader of the four soldiers is a Staff Sergeant in the film, but a 2nd Lieutenant in the novel – a small difference, but important in how the Buffalo Soldiers were organised. There is also rather more in the novel about the issues concerning white officers and Black men. In other words, the film is perhaps less challenging than the novel in confronting the racism in the US armed forces.

Here are Spike Lee and James McBride in New York discussing the issues surrounding the film – it seems to me that in McBride, Spike Lee has found a like-minded soul (but note the emphasis that McBride puts on the theme of friendship and spirituality over and above the story of the Buffalo Soldiers).

Lee says that he wanted to make the film after reading the book, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that he knew quite a lot about the 92nd Division and had already considered this kind of project. The US forces in the Second World War were still segregated (although led by white officers). This caused problems in Europe as depicted in the John Schlesinger film Yanks (UK/US/Germany 1979) in which the local British girls are attracted to the black GIs and don’t really understand the colour bar (which did exist in Britain, but not so openly). The only other films I know that deal directly with segregation in the US forces at this time are The Tuskegee Airmen, an HBO TV film from 1995 and Norman Jewison’s A Soldier’s Story (1984).

As you might expect, the four soldiers are not Hollywood types but carefully-drawn characters who are constructed in various ways to allow McBride and Lee to explore a range of issues. Pfc Train (Omar Benson Miller) is the ‘chocolate giant’ – the gentle and spiritual boy from North Carolina who has never been close to a white person before he rescues the Italian boy. Corporal Negron (Laz Alonso) is the solid and sensible radio operator from Spanish Harlem, a bilingual man who also speaks enough Italian to translate when they meet the villagers. Sergeant Bishop (Michael Ealy) and Staff Sergeant Stamps (Derek Luke) are the two who have ‘got on’ in life and in the Army, but Bishop is smooth and light-skinned, a con-man preacher from Kansas with the most obvious vices. Stamps is upright and sober but perhaps repressed – he is the product of a special US Army scheme devised to ‘fast track’ potential leaders. He is shocked that he feels more ‘free’ in Italy than at home and there is a vulnerability about him. They fall out over the only young attractive woman in the village – and just about everything else. There has been some comment that Bishop is too ‘modern’ in his speech and mannerisms and I can see this, but I suspect that Lee and McBride want to be sure that his behaviour is recognisable for a contemporary audience.

There are two aspects of the film that I suspect have caused most problems with American audiences. One is a typical Spike Lee insert into the narrative – a flashback to the soldiers during training in the Southern US where they encounter racists in a town bar (which was in the novel, although slightly differently handled). It’s the kind of incident that may well have happened in ‘real life’, but Lee plays it to the hilt. The other surprise for audiences, perhaps expecting a Hollywood style war film, is that the story is just as interested in the villagers and the partisans as in the soldiers and one of the central themes is the kind of supernatural bond that develops between Train and the boy and between the central family group in the village and the group of Black soldiers. McBride and Lee strongly suggest that for the soldiers, the village is a spiritual home.

The film did remind me of the great Hollywood war films – I mean the small-scale gritty pictures made by Robert Aldrich and Sam Fuller and also Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron – no higher praise really, except that it also reminded me of Rossellini’s Paisa with the partisans and Americans fighting the Germans (and the Brits mentioned and somewhere off-screen). The combat scenes were pretty impressive and exciting and probably quite realistic in terms of the survival rate in what was a very hard-fought campaign. I’d urge anyone to see the film – and to read the book. In an ideal world, I think I’d like Spike Lee to be able to make two films – Part 1 about how the Buffalo Soldiers were formed and Part 2 about what happened to them in Tuscany. I hope he returns to material like this. I’m also tempted to read more by James McBride.

Relative Stranger (US 2009)

The cast of Relative Stranger in a staged promo image.

The cast of Relative Stranger in a staged promo image.

I came across this by accident on TV and because I’d just lost the chance to screen a Charles Burnett picture (see Barbershop post) I made an effort to record it. Burnett is arguably the most celebrated of African-American directors because of Killer of Sheep and To Sleep With Anger. One critic has described him as an heir to Renoir.

So what is he doing directing a TV movie distributed by the Hallmark Channel and showing in the UK in the afternoon movie slot on Five? Either he needs the money (I presume that he’s never made much) or he just needs to work as he is becoming a ‘veteran’ at 65 and needs to have some kind of profile to promote future projects.

Relative Stranger is an 88 minute family melodrama. The central character is Walter, a man whose only real chance of a glorious career went with his knee when he was a football star six years ago. Presumably he wasn’t that big a star, or he didn’t have the right kind of insurance, because after hospital he decided he couldn’t face going home to his wife and family, and especially his father, as a ‘failure’. He can’t play football (the American kind) any more so he drives a cab in New York (somewhere North and East anyway). But work is scarce and when he gets a lawyer’s letter stating that his father has died, he decides to go to the reading of the will. Following the advice of a (white) clergyman who seems to be his (quite sensible and pragmatic) counsellor, he decides that he will take whatever money is coming to him and give it to the children he has abandoned. In this way he hopes to at least ease some of the pain. In LA, in a quite upmarket suburb, his wife is now in a relationship with his brother, his daughter is very anti the idea of his return, but his small son, only a toddler when Walter left, desperately wants to see him. His mother is quite phlegmatic about welcoming him back. He isn’t aware of any of this and what happens when he returns is a surprise.

What do I make of all this? The acting is fine and the story is not without interest, in fact it could be a great melodrama but . . .

I was nearly driven insane by the insistent background music – which isn’t a melodramatic score, but a dreadful muzak-like sentimental plinking and plunking that dribbled on throughout every scene. The mise en scène was so clean and ordered it was like watching a drama filmed in the style of an infomercial for an upmarket house furnishing store – there is virtually no chance of any expressionistic work. The casting was quite bizarre. Nobody looked like they were related to anyone else. OK this might not usually be a problem, but I expect a sense of realism from Charles Burnett. Walter’s daughter was supposed to be a budding athlete but she could barely run, whereas his brother looked like a weightlifting champ rather than a high school teacher and Walter’s wife was a kind of Cosby Show glamorous mother who worked as a legal executive. What I think this refers to (i.e. the middle class setting) is that sense of a positive representation of African-American life, desired by aspirant TV audiences, and I guess that is fine, but it certainly doesn’t allow a real melodrama. Afternoon movies have no bad language, no violence, physical or emotional and no real ‘excess’ to get stuck into. Somebody please find Charles Burnett a worthwhile project or funding for what he could organise for himself. The same goes for Eriq LaSalle as Walter, who deserves better roles – like the rest of the cast he has a strong TV background but only limited film appearances.

Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces Spain 2009)

Penélope as Audrey in the film within a film in Broken Embraces

Penélope as Audrey in the film within a film in Broken Embraces

I enjoyed the latest Almodóvar film, but I wasn’t excited by it – at least initially. It is more of an investigation of filmmaking than a melodrama, more a Bad Education noir thriller/romance than a Volver or an All About My Mother. Always ravishing to look at, the film seemed clever and intriguing rather than emotionally involving. Or more precisely, I didn’t ‘get’ the emotion until the closing quarter of the narrative. Perhaps if I watch it again, I’ll get more.

The story involves a filmmaker, Mateo (Lluís Homar), who is a blind scriptwriter when we first meet him, preferring to be known by his writing pseudoynm Harry Caine. (This is an intriguing name – is Almodóvar really interested in Michael Caine/Harry Palmer or is it a film noir reference to James M. Cain?). Mateo/Harry is supported by his agent Judit and her son Diego who acts as his amanuensis and surrogate son. The ‘inciting incident’ in the opening scenes is the newspaper announcement of the death of a wealthy industrialist, Ernesto Martel. A flashback to 1992 introduces us to the other two main characters in the narrative, Ernesto and his secretary Magdalena (Penélope Cruz). I’ll say no more than that the plot involves the making of a film with Mateo as director and ‘Lena’ as star. This is a film which clearly references Almodóvar’s first ‘breakout’ international hit, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Spain 1987).

There are several other direct references. At one point Mateo and Lena watch a scene from Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (Italy 1954). This is a film that I admire, but have also found difficult to engage with and I was at first baffled as to its significance here. Later I realised that the scene from Rossellini is possibly the basis for Almodóvar’s title. In the story, Ingrid Bergman (then married to Rossellini) plays a woman married to an Englishman (George Sanders). The couple have rented a villa in Southern Italy but their marriage is going through a very tricky time and when they visit the ruins of Pompeii, Ingrid breaks down at the image (described by the guide) of a couple overwhelmed by the lava flow that destroyed the city – and dying together in each other’s arms. Of course, this and several other references are explained in the film’s Press Pack – which I wish I’d read first and then I might have noticed a few more similar references. Almodóvar suggests in the Press Pack that the film is indeed about cinema and particularly about editing. Viaggio in Italia is also interesting in terms of the scripting process as well in that it is famously the film which Rossellini didn’t script but developed as he went along (goading and bewildering Sanders in the process, thus producing exactly the performance he wanted).

Several of the other references are obviously plot-related including Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (I think it was in there somewhere!) a genuine melodrama in which Jane Wyman falls for the man whose rash behaviour led to her husband’s death and her own blindness. Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold and several other noirs including Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven are also mentioned. Just as in Volver, Almodóvar revels in the chance to mould Penélope Cruz into visions of iconic stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. Cruz is simply breathtaking in the film, even if much of the time she is playing a role within a role. The whole film is incredibly beautiful and this was one digital print I won’t be complaining about – I’m glad I got to see it on the best possible big screen projection. A lot of credit must go to Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto who has now added Almodóvar to a list that includes Spike Lee and Ang Lee as well as Alejandro González Iñárritu.

I confess I do miss both the surrealism of early Almodóvar and the melodrama of some of his later films. The DVD scheduled for Broken Embraces promises some outtakes from the sequences of ‘Broken Suitcases’, the ‘film within the film’ – but perhaps I should watch Women on the Verge again?

Barbershop (US 2002)

The barbers with Calvin/Ice Cube (centre) and Cedric the Entertainer to the right of the chair.

The barbers with Calvin/Ice Cube (centre) and Cedric the Entertainer to the right of the chair.

I decided to screen this film on my evening class after I was forced to drop a proposed screening of Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger after UK screening rights were withdrawn – such are the problems of running a course with public cinema screenings.

Barbershop is a substitute on a course looking at ‘Representations of the African-American family’. It’s a social comedy focusing on the barbershop in South Chicago run by Calvin (Ice Cube), a young man with a pregnant wife who has had the shop, set up by his grandfather in 1958, bequeathed to him by his father. However, Calvin would really rather be operating his own music studio. The action takes place over a single day with a number of subplots concerning the various barbers who each rent out a chair in the shop, but the central story concerns whether Calvin will come to understand what the legacy of the shop means. The narrative offers a metaphor of Black community life with the ‘community’ of barbers representing a kind of extended family.

I’m familiar with the role of the barbershop in Hollywood westerns and gangster films and in the tradition of the ‘barbershop singers’, but I don’t think I’ve seen a film specifically about the African-American barbershop before. What struck me most forcibly was the similarity in the casting and narrative conventions between this film and the UK television sitcom Desmonds. Written by St. Lucian-born Trix Worrell and starring the great Norman Beaton, Desmonds was set in a South London barbershop owned by a Guyanayan immigrant played by Beaton. The show aired in the UK on Channel 4 from 1989-94. 70 26 minute episodes focused on Desmond’s family, his assistant and the odd characters from the local community who used the shop like a social centre. The show eventually aired successfully on BET (Black Entertainment Television) in the US, Canada and in the Caribbean. In my view, Desmond’s was one of the all-time classic UK sitcoms. It was consistently funny and represented the diversity of African-Caribbean communities in London (at least, the ones I came into contact with). It moved from stereotypes into more detailed characterisations.

I’ve not seen any references to Desmond’s in coverage of the US film, but I’m sure that it will have been influential and I note that Barbershop has been followed by Barbershop 2, Beauty Shop and a Barbershop TV series. The recurring characters are the older wisecracking partner/friend, played in the US version by Cedric the Entertainer, the dodgy ‘spiv’ type character in the UK version who becomes a trio of characters in Barbershop, the ‘strong women’ (wife/daughter/employee), the white assistant who is more ‘black’ than everyone else, the African student/intellectual (again two different characters in the US version) and finally Desmond/Calvin as a character just as interested in music as running the shop.

It is the range of characters which both provides the basis for narrative conflict and comedy and the possibility of making some kind of comment on what is happening politically in the Black community. Barbershop deals in stereotypical Black characters – the hapless petty crooks, the gangster boss of the district – but it also attempts to deal with the mythology of the Civil Rights movement in the provocation offered by Cedric the Entertainer and the same character points out that the barbershop is both a legitimate Black business and a place that is a social space – part of the ‘public sphere’ for the community (though, of course, he doesn’t use that terminology). Calvin also has a moment when he sympathises with an Indian shopkeeper (part of the joke being that he had always assumed that the guy was a Pakistani).

I enjoyed the film. As is nearly always the case now, I watched it with the subtitles for the hard of hearing, and this means that I got most of the jokes. I was entertained, the film wasn’t offensive and it made me feel good about the world. It’s also a film about the lower middle-class and the ‘petty-bourgeoisie’ in Marxist films. Since the other two films I’m screening are about middle class African-American families this is a bonus.

Director Tim Story has an interesting CV with blockbuster credits (The Fantastic Four) and other African-American-themed films including Hurricane Season (2009) set in the aftermath of Katrina. Writer Mark Brown was born in the UK (Birmingham), but raised in Washington DC. His characters have made the Barbershop franchise the most lucrative in African-American Cinema history.

Coco avant Chanel (France 2009)

Coco (Audrey Tautou) demonstrates her understanding of the erotic charge offered by the 'orphange dress' she creates as fancy dress for her friend, the Parisian actress Emilienne (Emmanuelle Devos).

Coco (Audrey Tautou) demonstrates her understanding of the erotic charge offered by the 'orphanage dress' she creates as fancy dress for her friend, the Parisian actress Emilienne (Emmanuelle Devos).

Gill Branston described this film as a ‘chick flick’ given the majority of the audience in Cardiff were women. I’m not sure there was the same majority in Hebden Bridge, but then Hebden doesn’t follow conventional demographics. I was pleasantly surprised by the film and I enjoyed it throughout. I can see why some audiences, expecting a straight biopic about Chanel were disappointed, but Anne Fontaine, director of a script she co-wrote does exactly what the film’s title suggests and offers us a young Coco before she became the iconic haute couture designer  – although there is a strange coda to the film which shows the more mature Chanel at some indeterminate time in the future when she clearly is famous.

The film is interesting in terms of its take on that French take on the ‘heritage drama’ that developed across the Channel at much the same time as its British counterpart. The houses and costumes look very good and all the performances are fine. The narrative worked well for me (some find it slow) and though I can see that Coco might be an unappealing character for some, I found her interesting and intriguing. It isn’t really a biopic as such as it offers only part of a life – and that the life before the subject had gained the height of her fame. I guess that the principal generic repertoire is really the romance. But it is also in a way a history lesson. I know little about fashion and care less, but the film certainly showed me why Chanel could be considered as innovative in costume design in France before 1914.

The major impact for me was the star performance of Audrey Tautou. I think she is one of the few contemporary stars who bears comparison with the great stars of classical cinema. Tautou has a distinctive face and the kind of slim body that shows off the clothes to perfection. Unlike most youngish Hollywood female stars, Tautou has her own star image – the modern gamine with a sense of determination. It seems to be working here as the film is doing reasonable business in markets across Europe. It has taken over $3 million in the UK , $2 million in Germany, $2.2 million in Spain and $1.6million in Italy to go with the $6 million plus in France. With the smaller markets chipping in and the US to come, the final total will be near the Warner Bros investment in production costs. With a reasonable afterlife on DVD and TV this might make up for some of the losses on A Very Long Engagement from the same star and studio.