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French Cinema, Romance, Womens Film

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.


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