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4 August 2009

La Vie en Noir et Blanc

I like to shop. Some might even call me a shopaholic (or, at least, a would-be shopaholic) but I'm not the most fashion-conscious girl in the world. Sure, I can give the name and shade of most Mulberry bags and I have some idea about Longchamp and a number of other brands, but I'm no expert. I'm no fan of Audrey Tautou either. It's not really fair to judge her just on the basis of The Da Vinci Code (which I saw on a plane while very jet-lagged) but Amélie grated deeply on my soul and I couldn't bring myself to see Dirty Pretty Things because of it.

It is therefore perhaps rather surprising that I went to see Coco avant Chanel but a girlie-girl friend of mine was keen to see it and as Kermode and Mayo weren't around to diss Amelie Tautou in last week's film podcast, I didn't have a good reason at hand to say no. Going in, I asked the ticket booth girl whether it was a good film. "Yeah, it's good. A bit of a chick flick..." You don't say... The well-heeled cinema-goers of W1 certainly agreed--unsurprisingly, I didn't see more than a handful of men in the audience. The trailers also agreed: The Real the Devil Wears Prada, Julie and Julia and the new, slightly edgier, modern and opposite scenario to Revolutionary Road.

So, Gabrielle Chanel and her sister Adrienne are presqu'orphelines (their mother died and their father buggered off) so off they go to the orphanage, aged nine-ish, hoping their father will come to rescue them. It is not to be. Fifteen years later and here we are in a French town near Paris in the heady, hedonistic '20s. Gabrielle and her sister are performing bawdy music-hall songs and dances in some dingy saloon. Their favourite song is called "Coco," hence her impending sobriquet. The sisters are going to head off to Paris to try to become famous but then Adrienne meets a baron (as one does) who secrets her away to his country abode with promises of marriage. Coco, meanwhile, meets a rich old man with a castle.

He also has lots of contacts so after he leaves the sticks and returns to the chateau, Coco decides to pay a visit. He isn't impressed because he has all his posh mates and actress friends visiting and doesn't want them to see this simply, countryside lover of his. At first they don't get on very well. She doesn't like being ignored by him or being used by him as a way of entertaining his friends (which is a bit rich given that she is using him for his money); he doesn't like her moods. She also has a habit of cutting up his clothes, particularly the crisp white shirts, and using the pieces to customise her clothes. Oh, and she nicks his trousers and refuses to ride side-saddle as well. Quelle brute!

Things start to look up, though, once Coco starts imparting style advice upon Lord Snooty's actress friends and, later, making them hats. They are doubtful at first ("Wot, no feathers? No corset? Are you mad?") but she's pretty good at it and starts to build up a relationship. Enter "Boy," an English wannabe business man who is trying to do some business with Lord Snooty involving coal. He also quite likes Coco but she's pretty hostile--to all men and most women, really--and it takes him whisking her away for a weekend at Deauville, by the sea, before she really falls for him. Lord Snooty is now a little jealous but luckily for him and unluckily for Coco, he knows a secret: Coco's Boy is a something of a player and is also soon going to marry the heiress of an English coal magnate...

That's OK, though, because he'll still finance her chapellerie and pop by for a quickie every time he's in town. This is seemingly quite often but he does complain she keeps abandoning him in favour of her hats, only for her to explain that if he stayed longer, he wouldn't have to keep leaving her. Coco doesn't need men, you see (apart from financially and even then only initially) because she has talent and determination and she will make it.

Yes, it was a chick flick, although at least I get some kudos for practising my French (that said, both Tautou's and Benoît Poelvoorde (Lord Snooty)'s accents were pretty hard to follow). The film itself was beautifully shot and surprisingly colourful apart from the protagonist with her black hair, alabaster skin and muted, neutral-coloured clothes (usually black and/or white). Contrasts were constantly being made with clever little shots--here's a beautiful autumn forest with the ground strewn with orange and yellow leaves and here's Coco in her light brown jacket, white shirt and black trousers; here's a ball where everyone is wearing awful, bright, gaudy dresses and OTT hats with ridiculous feathers and here's Coco in a gorgeous LBD of her own design. Ms Chanel is certainly an interesting character and I didn't find Amelie Tautou particularly annoying. The plot developed quickly enough and while both of the male leads were pretty irritating in their own ways, this was part of the point. It was, after all, 1912-ish and so women really should know their limits--even if they are wearing trousers. It wasn't the greatest film I've seen all year but it was an enjoyable enough way to spend a muggy Tuesday evening.


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