Coco Before Chanel – 10th Anniversary

Coco Before Chanel – Retrospective

Directed by Anne Fontaine

Written by Anne & Camille Fontaine

Chanel and Her World by Edmonde Charles-Roux

Before the brand, there was a woman. Before that little black dress, there was a little straw hat – preceding all of this, was ‘Coco Before Chanel’ (2009), based on the writings of Edmonde Charles-Roux’s ‘Chanel and Her World’.

In celebration of Anne Fontaine’s biographical film’s tenth anniversary, we look back at the movie which seeks, not to place Chanel as what the public understand, but to retreat into her roots. A woman of merit stretching far beyond her role as a fashion designer, a liberator to the constriction of the pre-war corset silhouette of the European women, and a company leader. The young woman who would refuse to succumb to the banal interests of rich men, instead maintain a presence of bohemian brilliance which would change the face of couture culture and women in the place of business.

In a role which is frequently said to be one she was ‘born to play’, Audrey Tautou takes on the mantle of Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, or as the world would know her – Coco Chanel. Notable in her gamine charm, Tautou is, one must admit, the epitome of perfect casting. Exceeding simple aesthetical similarities, Tautou’s mannerism and characterisation match that of Chanel magnificently, in a rare moment of blindness to the performer – we see Chanel, we no longer see Tautou.

Developing excellently playful chemistry with Tautou, Benoît Poelvoorde fails to fall into a category of a patriarchal antagonist, maintaining a close relationship with the real-life counterpart of Étienne Balsan. A French socialite, he took to becoming Coco Chanel’s lover, as she remained in his residence for her life following her days singing in the bars of Moulins.

Echoing what would be her inevitable future as ‘public property’ Coco is discussed by her male companions, though never directly crass, in a sense of objectivity. Upon repetitious requests to; ‘be more feminine’ Coco’s response is to maintain a steadfast aesthetic, one which she would design for Hollywood herself. Apparel which ensnares powerful men, despite protestations of hidden curves and concealing flesh. The clothes fellow women in the room wear, to Chanel, are unbecoming, cumbersome and uncomfortable and unsurprisingly, have the desire of men as their intention.

Stepping into an androgynous merging of gendered clothing, frequently remarked in her dressing as a ‘boy’, Fontaine’s film is a clever piece on the obsessive need for men to dress women, and in turn, the reversed gaze in which woman would make decisions on their gowns. How this develops from written elements into visual is what keeps ‘Coco Before Chanel’ an interesting piece, even as the narrative grates with age.

Little insight is up for concern as to the films nature as a visual creation. With academy award nominations for its costume design, one would expect nothing less from a film centring itself of one of history’s notable designers. In a room full of frivolity, extravagance and choking pastels, our gaze is drawn to Tauton’s costume. Astutely lacing the design into the narrative, as her world begins to choke, her garb loosens in the traditional Chanel style, exquisitely capturing the comfort chic, barrelling out against the seductive lace or restrictive corsets.

Catherine Leterrier may have been unsuccessful in obtaining a BAFTA or Academy award for her costume design, but small merit winning a Caesar Award. An honourable, if underwhelming honour as the visual nature of the film is easily its greatest asset following Tautou’s performance.

Outside of the boundaries of costume, Christophe Beaucarne’s cinematography plays with the triatic scheme of colour in a mesmeric way – particularly in the films closing. Monochromatic in construct, much of Chanel’s work has a blend of black and white – an echoing motif throughout the film, Beaucarne splices a single colour, regularly crimson, to strike out against these polar opposite tones.

What falters the film is Fontaine’s move of pedestalling Chanel to an elaborate level, particularly once the romance with Chapel (Alessandro Nivola) accelerates. With such a tiny framework of her life under examination, such care is taken to make it interesting and unsympathetic – to see the woman before the brand, that the closing quarter of the film refrains from embracing the set pace – making for a paradoxically sluggish, yet rushed ending. 

In striving to put out their name, a task already hindered in male-dominated sectors, quite often women are rounded out as too perfect, too infallible – a tragic consequence in the depiction of real women in film. Coco Chanel, for all she did, was far more compelling than the film makes her out to be. Fontaine limits her timescale, a necessity in biographical dramas, in doing this, Chanel’s darker history is cast aside, a history which the film fails to allude too. Her early successes in life are seen, but we cut the balancing secret aspirations and beliefs which keep her fallible. As such, the film moves from an unceremonious examination of her youth – to a sudden tone shift.

Director and screenwriter Anne Fontaine would later refuse to shy from controversy, her intense gut-punch of reality would unearth in her recent film ‘The Innocents’ (2016), but for as sublime as Coco Before Chanel’s visuals and performances may be, one can sense the emptiness. Tautou captures the woman before she was a household name, offering a glimpse into the trials and fire she had in her belly – but is let down by writing which fails to continue the unsentimental detachment it opens with, instead, resorting to an odd mid-climax which belongs in a different film.

Casanova – Festival Theatre

Choreographer: Kenneth Tindall

Original Scenario: Kenneth Tindall & Ian Kelly

Decadence and debauchery: terms that readily come to mind when thoughts turn to Giacomo Casanova. For many, this image is synonymous with adultery, womanising and sexual deviance. Instead, Kenneth Tindall’s adaptation for the Northern Ballet company’s production of Casanova offers a look at the passion, pain and grandiose lifestyle behind the name.

From the ensuing prologue until the closing grand ballabile, the strength, ferocity and talent of Northern Ballet is monumental. The memoirs of Casanova are often documented as one of the most insightful references into social practices of 18th century Europe. To condense twelve volumes into two hours is commendable, it charts Casanova’s ‘fall from grace’ during his early priesthood, through Venetian court to the birth of Casanova as the entertainer, gambler, adventurer and author.

Unlike more traditional ballets, there is no female lead. Instead, the company comprises ballerinas who play pivotal roles such as the Savorgnan sisters, who have the initial hand(s) in Casanova’s corruption. Rather, Tindall and Kelly have been clever in their use of the ballerinas, Bellino and Henriette, Casanova’s two major lovers, both masquerade as men, one out of necessity, the other fear.

The success of the story of Casanova is down, primarily, to Giuliano Contadini. From the entrée, Contadini makes an impression. His physical strength and delicacy are enviable. Commendable too is Contadini’s acting ability. Following an emotive and personal pas de deux with Hannah Bateman as Henriette, in which her affair is revealed to her husband, we witness Contadini’s visceral explosion of rage. From conventional light pieces with the sisters and Henriette to a more modern influence of heavily stylised symbolism with the monks, the range of movement is expansive, Contadini and the company rising to all challenges.

This precise movement only reaches such elevated visual heights with the help of complementary lighting, score and design. Indeed, to say that Christopher Oram’s work is awe inspiring, borders on simplistic. Combined with Alastair West’s lighting, what is generated is an ever-evolving atmosphere. Skeletal gowns of all shades, drape the dancers.

Oram’s costumes, used in tandem with the lighting, further instil a sense of wonder and depth. Penetrating bursts of red assault, quite suddenly, the darkness from the Head Inquisitor, then suddenly vanish into the blackness. Madame de Pompadour’s lavishness contrasts heavily with the bound chest of Bellino. What is achieved with these dissected costumes is a paradoxical balance between the majesty of 18th Century glamour stripped back to expose the technique and artistry of the ballet beneath.

Casanova is a production devoid of fault. It is a piece of sublime art, accessible to all and one that should be re-lived and shared.

Review originally published for Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/casanova-festival-theatre-edinburgh/

Production information: https://northernballet.com/casanova

Photos Guy Farrow, Emma Kauldhar, Caroline Holden, and Justin Slee.

The Bodyguard – Edinburgh Playhouse

Screenplay by Lawrence Kasden

Book by Alexander Dinelaris

Directred by Thea Sharrock

Basing its structure on the 1992 film, Alexander Dinelaris’s screenplay makes a decent attempt in capturing the original Bodyguard, but sadly refrains from expanding upon it. Lawrence Kasden’s cinematic release told the developing love story between singer Rachel Marron and her bodyguard Frank Farmer.

The Bodyguard contains numerous Whitney Houston classics. Marron, stubborn to the interference Farmer poses, attempts to live her life. Together with her envious but vastly more talented sister, she stays with her young song. With her PR team desperate for an Oscar to boost her career, Farmer and Marron begin to realise that the most important things aren’t the fame or fortune.

Beginning with a literal bang, one may notice that our first impressions of The Bodyguard are that this might just be something extraordinary. To use the term spectacle is too simplistic, Tim Hatley’s set design is of incredible construction. It frames the production marvellously, honing our focus into the correct areas. Expanding for us to take in the bigger picture. If only there had been this much dedication in the adaption of the script or direction.

Returning is Alexandra Burke, who receives an eruption of applause from a ravenous crowd. First portraying the character of Rachel Marron back in 2012, Burke takes to the character well-enough, seeking to show off a younger, less experienced diva than Whitney’s version. It’s always promising to hear a performer take the role and make it their own, but the first act highlights that Burke is first and foremost a singer before a stage performer. Her control for standout numbers, I Will Always Love You and Jesus Loves Me are the exceptions where she finds a balance between the two.

Vocally, she is there. There is no question to her capabilities to hold a tune, but her characterisation is lacking. Chiefly this is down to the script, which seems to have severe issues with Rachel’s identity. She flips in the span of a single scene from staunch, headstrong mother into a whimpering lovestruck teenager. The whiplash from such a turnaround does Burke no favours. Attempting to save Rachel in the second half, Burke does well to inject some humour, but it’s not enough.

We seem to be watching the wrong sister for the majority of the production, for as evidently talented as Burke is – she is simply outshone by Micha Richardson’s envious sister Nicki Marron. Her emotive voice far surpasses anything we have seen this evening. In reality, her connection with the bodyguard himself Benoit Marechal is superior to that of Burke. Marechal, who is as charismatic as possible turns in an impressive Farmer.

Issues with narrative show more in the second half, but by these are largely overlooked by the finale, which, truth be told, is rather phenomenal. It’s what most of the audience has been waiting for. Burke belting out the notable tracks of the production, with some surprise vocals from the ensemble and antagonist Phil Atkinson who we discover is vastly underused.

You know you have an issue when your antagonist receives laughter upon arrival. Especially, given the nature of the character. We’re informed that this ex-military man could have a potential history of sexual violence, assault and is a masterful tactician. The stage version toys with a Travis Bickle inspiration for their antagonist. Atkinson is capable of the role, he has the manner to be intimidating, but the stage direction places him more as eye-candy than a genuine threat. One really has to think if the phrase “sexual assault” should follow your audience’s wolf-whistles.

What’s hugely frustrating about The Bodyguard is that this has the potential for a five star, stellar production. The components are in place, but they devastatingly underutilise the talents they have. This is the genre of production which resurrects a cinematic counterpart but fails to build upon it.

The Bodyguard has some of the finest set design and backing orchestral touring the country, but it has little sense of identity. Unsure if it wants to be a large-scale jukebox musical or serious drama. It deserves it’s standing ovations as much as it deserves its criticism.

Runs until July 20th, tickets avialable from The Plahouse: https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-bodyguard/edinburgh-playhouse/