Two films kept popping up disconcertingly in my mind as I watched COCO BEFORE CHANEL: Frank Capra’s PLATINUM BLONDE (1931) and John Huston’s MOBY DICK (1956). What these older films share in common with this new release is severe miscasting of their lead roles, intensified by the presence in their casts of actors playing subsidiary parts who might have been perfectly cast, in their stead. In PLATINUM BLONDE you had a young, very amateurish and stiff Jean Harlow trying her best (and failing) to be convincing as an aristocratic heiress who shockingly falls in love with a lowly news reporter, while Loretta Young, with her perfect thoroughbred beauty and blue-blood bearing, played a tough, wise-cracking girl newshound, languishing with unrequited love for the same guy, the very sort of role Harlow would eventually learn to definitively embody. MOBY DICK was blighted by the utterly wooden performance of Gregory Peck – the sanest, dullest actor who ever lived – as demonically possessed Captain Ahab, while Orson Welles, with his thunderous voice and commanding presence, who must have displayed gravitas in the cradle and could have played Ahab in his sleep, was relegated to the one-scene part of a New England minister.
Director Anne Fontaine echoes the errors of the past by casting Audrey Tatou, a delicate gamine, most remembered for her diabetically sweet turn as that pixie-ish do-gooder AMELIE, as that redoubtable, ultimate fashion warrior, Coco Chanel, while, on the sidelines, the always vivid and strong Emmanuele Devos – so moving in Anne Le Ny’s CEUX QUI RESTENT – is relegated to a supporting role as Emilienne d’Alencon, an elegant courtesan who shows the young bumpkin Coco the velvet ropes of Parisian Belle Epoque high society. Devos, with her wide, gash of a mouth, like Chanel, is a true jolie laide, and might have imbued the film’s flimsy concept of the couturiere as a girl who overcame her victimization by men to find professional fulfillment with more steely backbone and emotional variety than Tatou, who affects a nun-like, rigorous concentration in her solo sewing scenes, mouth full of pins, brow furrowed with determination, but little more to convey her character’s complexity. In the smaller role of d’Alencon, much more within her limited range, she might have been dazzling, with her doll-like features and form flaunting the kind of opulent finery which drove Marcel Proust mad and Chanel, herself, overturned.
Gabrielle Coco Chanel
I interviewed Fontaine earlier this year about this film and she told me that she thought Tatou had the perfect “androgyne” quality for the part, but, in her case, it’s purely physical, not spiritual, making me think the director got the actual character of Chanel mixed up with her company’s latest 2009 ad campaign, of which Tatou just happens to be the official muse at present. This less than salubrious marriage of history and contemporary commercialism rather echoes the 2005 Metropolitan Museum of Art Chanel exhibit, which really emerged as “The Karl Lagerfeld Show,” as his recent designs for the house were given equal prominence with the original work of Coco, herself, and, in every instance, suffered by comparison in workmanship, finish and originality, even when displayed alongside faded gowns dating back three quarters of a century and more.
Tatou is dark, like Chanel was, but her conventional prettiness is like a heavily photoshopped, adorably anime version of the woman, who had far more than mere conventional good looks for allure. Diana Vreeland once compared her in her youth to a furiously snorting little bull and said, “You have no idea how ATTRACTIVE she was!”
The actual Chanel, being a personal fabulist, herself, might well have approved of this too-pretty soap opera-ish account of herself as a sweet young thing who found her true inner self in the atelier, those pesky men always bothering her be damned! When it was announced to her that Hepburn would play her on Broadway in a musical version of her life, she was at first happy to think it would be the faunlike, young Audrey, and then much less so when she learned that it was actually the older, flinty Katharine who had been cast. One can just imagine the scene: “Mademoiselle Chanel, nous avons Hepburn pour toi!” “Audrey? Merveilleux!” “Non, Katharine!” “”AUDREY, n’est-ce pas?” “NON, KATHARINE!,” that wide gash growing ever wider with disdain and disappointment.
Katharine Hepburn in COCO, 1969
Fontaine’s film lingers so long on Chanel’s early, struggling years as a cabaret singer that you might think you’ve mistakenly wandered into another Piaf biopic. These scenes are nicely filmed, but you want to get to the clothes, at which point it devolves into a very conventional love triangle between Coco, her rich, eminent protector Etienne Balsan (Benoit Polvoorde), and Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola), the more youthful and physically appealing, but less materially favored, love of her life. Both actors are unable to do much with these cardboard roles, who seem tired retreads of the rival suitors in Alexandre Dumas’ CAMILLE, and Nivola decidedly lacks dash and the devastating allure of Capel, which fairly leaps out at you, even in ancient photographs published in various Chanel biographies
Chanel with Boy Capel
Much is made of Chanel’s ridding women of the rococco fripperies and binding corsetry of the early twentieth century, but, without more of a real creative conception – how exactly did she arrive at her timeless formula? – the severe ensembles she shocks Paris with here seem drably uniformlike. The film ends with a shot of the older Chanel seated atop the famed staircase of her Rue Cambon salon, watching a parade of models wearing an historic selection of her designs. This coup de theatre was done far more effectively – and, ironically, more cinematically – on Broadway in 1969, when, in COCO, Michael Bennett brilliantly staged a retrospective fashion show (all Cecil Beaton riffs on Chanel, all red) surrounding Hepburn’s cawing, butch presence that had all the brio and color this film so sorely lacks.
Fontaine also told me that she chose to focus on this early part of the designer’s life to avoid any conventional biopic considerations. More’s the pity, as Chanel went on to have a far more fascinating subsequent life, which entailed accusations of Nazi collaboration with her German lover during WWII, a vicious, fascinating rivalry with Elsa Schiaparelli who came closest to unseating her as Queen of Paris fashion, and an amazing, post-war comeback at the age of 70, which firmly established her as an immovable fashion force until her death at 86, in 1971. She ended up a true monstreuse, unbearably overbearing, who, according to Beaton, never stopped talking, and all about herself. Like all human beings, she was full of ambivalence and complexity, but I guess this would mar the received, commercially comfortable idea of her as the perfect independent, modern, ground-breaking Frenchwoman whose titular company continues to unload costly mountains of purses, perfume and drag. The irony is that here, one would absolutely have preferred a “conventional biopic,” in place of this flossy soap opera which really demeans Chanel, making her little more than a conventional, not very interesting romantic heroine.
La vielle Chanel – in fashion, one earns one’s face