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.

Amélie The Musical – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Book: Craig Lucas

Music: Danie Messé

Lyrics: Nathan Tysen & Daniel Messé

The awkward daughter of a neurotic and a germophobe (we’ve all been there), Amélie is as socially fragile as she is dedicated to helping others. In the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, Amélie has a revelation – to help flicker the light of the world through minuscule, almost invisible acts of kindness which spiral into deliciously absurd results. Now, if only she could find a way to have that adventure in her own life.

Audrey Tautou’s performance in the cinematic release acquired universal praise. Audrey Brisson’s Améliehas the base characteristics, but she has an edge, a bite to her. In part, this is mostly due to the music elements, Brisson’s voice an intensely emotive one. As a recluse, we adore her, want to keep her safe, but know her determination and creativity will keep her out of (too much) trouble.

For as little time as Danny Mac and Brisson spend on stage together, they generate a remarkable amount of chemistry. Nico, a character he brings life to when able, is woefully underutilised given Mac’s impressive vocals and quaint charm.

This is how you adapt a cinematic masterpiece. This is how you encourage a fresh basis for fans, lovers and admirers of the theatre. Sculpting a sublime stroll through the whimsical world of Amélie the Musical, Craig Lucas’ book carefully adapts Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 award-winning French movie. Expanding the surrealist imagery, modern fairy-tale narrative and mise-en-scène of a timeless France for the theatre. It’s a rare, triumphant feat in knowing which parts of the film could be grander onstage and which components to leave behind.

Following from the original Broadway outing, there was an injection of ‘Frenchness’ by director Fentiman in the composition of the production. For the film, there’s a dusty cloud of bon-bon sweetness to its French identity. The stage version captures the je ne sais quoi, striking a timeless Gallic style of folk music in Daniel Messe’s score. There’s a sublime use of rough beats, which from the outset pump blood around the body, letting us know that the score and lyrics for Amélie maybe its mightiest asset.

It isn’t all champagne and caviar, through all the madness, the surrealist nature of Amélie does take the time to breathe, both to success and its only let-down. We find tender moments of delight, touching scenes which round off characters, provide some space to gather ourselves. The closing act feels drawn out, by around ten minutes. The story is spun, our character’s content. Finally, Amelie is to have her deserving moment, but it doesn’t arrive when it ought. We have our emotions of tenter hooks, only to wait a little longer.

Amélie the Musical is a contemporary fairy-tale, the genre in which we find aspects of imagination, the fantastic and enchantment through our characters absurdist disconnection with reality. We have malevolent figs, goldish companions and a charmingly crafted young Amélie puppet. A garden gnome, travelling the world and kind enough to send postcards. They all represent something, insecurities and failure to move on through grief. Madeleine Girling’s design takes note of Jeunet and Laurant’s 2001 aesthetic, magnifying it for the stage. From the moment we enter the theatre, the cast-iron greens peer out from the thick nicotine-tinted lighting. It’s a visual splendour of theatre.

It is these moments, these heightened fantastical scenes which make Amélie a treasure for the musical theatre collection. Its illusionary lighting, coy fairy-tale charm and folk-style composition set it apart from the rag-tag of Jukebox and ever replaying musicals. So, take advice from Amélie, leave the confines of boredom, dive into imagination and treat yourself to something magical.

Review originally published for Reviews Hub:

Production Touring:

Image contribution: Pamela Reith