Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Coco Avant Chanel

| by Allan Stackhouse |

If you're completely lost when it comes to the French language, remember that avant means before in English. The French language film is immediately framed in a time when women were not treated as equals in society. It tells a tale of Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel's past, avant she becomes the household name she is today. Unfortunately, the events in this tale are not particularly interesting. As much as I cared about Chanel's character, the dramatic elements in the film that acted as the focus of the film were not very deep or meaningful.

Gabrielle and her sister Adrienne work in a brothel as singers when the majority of the female employees there work as prostitutes. The male patrons treat them as objects and √Čtienne Balsan expresses his distaste in Gabrielle's bold attitude. Gabrielle despises this weak image of women, expressing her disgust of it to the general. I found it hypocritical of her to have so vehemently denied the old image and roles of women yet slip into them herself later in the film.

I was largely disappointed with cinematography in this film. Perhaps the standard definition should take the blame but I noticed many opportunities where better uses of lighting and focus could have done wonders. The shot at the end with the models going down the staircases with mirrors was a golden opportunity to show something interesting instead of just a medium shot with Coco in focus and the models walking past her as she observes them. The lighting was basic and overly diffused, a technique that's so stereotypical of period pieces. Perhaps not having been able to see this film in high definition was a good thing since the image would have been clearer but the focuses and shots would look just as bland as they were.

Regarding the clothing as a visual tool, this was done very seldom. Her claim to fame being a fashion designer, I was expecting more of an appropriate use of this instead of just this recurring element that sets up drama with the other character but not here career. In one scene, Coco observes the clothing among the gentry-folk.

The catalyst to the explosion of Coco's design creativity is evidently placed on Boy's death. This was troubling for me because whatever momentum that Coco had left as a woman and designer after her willingness to be his mistress was gone at the action's of someone else, not through her own willingness. Because Boy died, she will now become the designer she was destined to become. If this was actually what happened, fine. However, as a film, this does not play out well. I think it's sending the message that men, no matter how independent women are, will always be needed by women in order to get further in life. Perhaps this was true at the time but the concept does not work here.

In the middle of the second act, I began to find this film overly pretentious with the characters' constant dance around what everyone was actually trying to say. Whether the love triangle between Coco, Balsan, and Boy happened in real life or not, I found this indirect way of speaking and doing things to be very irritating and stereotypical of period pieces. If you can stomach this old form of speaking and handling relationships, perhaps you will enjoy this film. The refrain from saying what anyone really wanted to set up long and irritating conversations that promoted this turn of the century melodrama.

As a side note, when you think of fashion's most famous houses, do you think of Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Gianni Versace? What do all of those have in common? They're male-headed houses ironically for women's fashion. The text at the end of the film reads something to sort of, “She achieved success in a man's world.” This is a great fact to know but there was not enough of this in the film. What was there were these constant looks of disgust or disapproval.

The elements that I did find interesting were her interest in fashion, her relationship with her sister. Multiple times throughout the film, Coco mentions her parents and her time at the orphanage, the story always different than the last time. Did she experience shame over this? Adrienne came in and out of the story and her storyline was not concluded. Her last appearance in the film is at Coco's house/studio

I was not “gripped” by this film in the least, even though whoever wrote the back of the DVD claimed that it would be. The drama that's also touted in the film I found to be very pretentious and uninteresting. Where there was a lot of opportunity to make this film more visually pleasing, the film chose instead to focus on the melodramatic elements of Coco's story instead of playing up her independence and drive to succeed.

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