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.

Manual Cinema’s Frankenstien – Underbelly McEwan Hall

Original Novel by Mary Shelley

Directed by Drew Dir

Runs at Underbelly Bristo Square, July 31st –August 26th (not 12), 14.45pm

Eternally inventive, Chicago based company Manual Cinema are known for their talents of shadow puppetry. Of all the texts in all of the gothic horrors, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a notable difficulty to adapt. With numerous versions – could they do anything new with it? They not only breathe life into the Monster, but they also pay tribute to almost all incarnations which have come before.

It goes further, however, giving not only an account of Shelley’s novel but of her creative reasoning. From the loss of her child to the wager with Lord Byron – the history of Mary Shelley is given some limelight alongside her infamous creation.

You don’t know whether to watch the magic on screen, or the innovation behind the scenes. Your eyes, somehow transfix as the shadows swirl, shimmer and streak across the smoke-stain screens of gothic design, yet still, dart around trying to absorb it all. There’s almost a little too much going on, and at times a distracting sense of chaos.

What’s truly impressive is Manual Cinema’s uncanny ability to demonstrate why this was cinematic. As the Monster takes its first steps, a shift in dimension occurs. Frankenstein crosses the threshold of spectacle at this moment as the camera shadows a puppet of the creature taking its first steps into the world. The angle work here is breathtaking, offering a force of perspective you wouldn’t achieve as efficiently with Theatre.

The puppet, a mess of intricate stitches, spare-parts and emotive eyes is but one of their tools. Performances from the cast as shadow people hark to the aesthetics of expressionist film makers or Robert Wiene and Paul Leni. It is the sound design which lifts the production. A collection of self-playing drums, musicians and effects work to provide a feast for the ears to compliment the already entranced gaze.

Mary Shelley was a revolutionary of science-fiction and gothic horror. Manual Cinema are paying her in kind, improving the relationship between theatre and cinema. A connection as old as technology would allow, it is garnering praise for embracing artistries tools of puppetry, make-up and lighting.

In the final moments, there’s a beautiful addendum to the tale, the monsters swansong, its final moments are given new life, by Manual Cinema. Reminding us that the only person to ever love the creature, was its creator – and no, not the Doctor. Shelley needed her Modern Prometheus just as he was longing for a parent. Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein is the result of a team with near mastery of their craft.

Tickets available from:

Monstrus Circus

Directed by Jordan Inconstant

France / 2019 / 29 mins

What makes a monster, and what makes the man? This is an ancient artistic trope which finds itself in a variety of art, literature and media, perhaps nowhere quite like the circus. Winner of five Gold Movie AwardsMonstrus Circus takes this trope and brings it to the Highlands of Scotland to blend an archaic story-telling narrative with unique visuals, stylistic camera work and sublime colour use.

Leonard, a magician, has the idea to set-up a circus of freaks in Scotland. Together with clown Auguste (who is portrayed by director Jordan Inconstant) the band of hypnotists, strong-men and vampiric opera singers make for just beside Loch Ness. Unable to see the beauty in others, Edgar Finnigan (Louis Donval) finds himself at the raw-end of Leonard’s magic. This modern fantasy fuses traditional moral lessons with a contemporary message of acceptance.

In a way their feature-length counterparts often shy from, short films are pre-eminent in their experimentation. While Jordan Inconstant’s direction stays reasonably safe with narrative, the team find plenty to play with in terms of visuals, cinematography and Sylvain Ott’s musical composition. The interior shots take place in France, including warm set dressing alluding to classic fantasy, while exterior shots take place in Scotland, notably on the Isle of Skye. Upon seeing The Old Man of Storr, Inconstant captures Scotland in a manner only those with a profound love for the country are able.

With drone footage, which offers the wide, sweeping shots desirable to showcase the landscape, they achieve a tremendous accomplishment. Given the unreliability of weather, Monstrus Circus brings a calmness to the climate of Skye. The excitement in visuals lies in the framework for shots, with the odd Dutch angle sneaking into the film. A variety of shots are played with, knowing where to draw focus or distort our perception.

How can we identify a distinctively French creative team behind a production? Just look at the colour palette. Monstrus Circus, above all, is a mesmerically charming piece to watch, chiefly down to its triatic colour design which emphasises distinctive tones against the tempered (though striking) Scottish landscape. It causes the fluorescent yellows of the circus tent to leap out against the broad strokes of black waters of the loch. In truth, it rings of Goddard’s Contempt (1963) or Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie (2001), saturating the screen to an extent, without straying into garish.

Especially with Jeunet, Monstrus Circus finds itself firmly in the fantastical genre of film making. While this reinforces both the plot and colour scheme, it also lends itself to the visuals which comprise scrupulous VFX shots, putting large-scale productions to shame. There is indeed the odd snippet where we can see the technology behind the magic, but for the most part, a tremendous level of proficiency is at work for the special effects. The transformation of the base of Castle DunBroch into the circus tent is so skillfully done, for example, that the resulting illusion is just as impressive as the majestic castle itself.

When entering the fantastical, any effects need a tangible reality. With reliance on graphics for contemporary fairy-tales and science fiction, the uncanny valley draws too close. Monstrus Circus, however, finds that sublime balance between necessary computer visuals and special-effects make-up. Characters’ freakish forms, chiefly made-up of seven hours worth of make-up, showcase how dedication, ingenuity and a working relationship with computer effects can heighten the overall intent.

Our Auld Alliance is alive and breathing; with a distinctive French heart amidst the Scottish visage, it is a union of enchantment. Monstrus Circus is a testament to the experimental nature of short-filmmaking and how its creator’s talents know few boundaries – c’est magnifique!

Review originally published for Wee Review: