DESIGNING WOMEN: Reviews of Coco Before Chanel, My One and Only and Bright Star

It’s a little difficult to determine why, and therefore somewhat annoying that, Coco Before Chanel is as enjoyable as it is. After all, it’s a fairly standard biopic, as sturdy and strong as anything put out by Warner Brothers in the 1930’s. At the same time, it does have one thing many biopics don’t; it doesn’t try to tell us how important, how great, how significant the subject is. Coco Before Chanel imparts its story somewhat simply and to the point; not as if this is a biography of the greatest fashion designer of the 20th century, but as if it was nothing more than a study of what it was like to be a woman who wanted a career when fin de siècle was in the air. It also doesn’t try to bite off more than it should chew. The story line covers only a relatively short period of Chanel’s life, from the time she left an orphanage to the time she opened her first dressmaking shop, what appears to be but a few years.

Coco is played by Audrey Tatou with a dour face and an uningénue type temperament (which means she’s getting beyond what she began as, the French Audrey Hepburn). Her performance is impressive; perhaps not as impressive as Marion Cotillard’s turn as Edith Piaf in La vie en rose, but then Tatou hasn’t been given all the heavy breathing and melodramatic acrobatics Cotillard was (though it is odd the same thing happened to both characters; their married lovers died tragically—is this a French thing?). She also does what George C. Scott as Patton and Sean Penn as Harvey Milk did—in the future when you think of Chanel, whose face will you see? The original or Tatou’s?

When all is said and done, it should be noted that Coco Before Chanel falls into the standard women’s biopic in which what the character does with her life is not as important as is her relationship to the men in said life. Her life is defined not just by her achievements, but in how she relates to the opposite sex. To understand what I mean, consider that if Patton was a woman, the central dilemma would be not how he defeated the Germans, but in her having to chose between a husband and children and fighting the Battle of the Bulge (and no, I don’t mean weight loss). What may be doubly disturbing is that though this may be a chauvinistic approach, it is also what makes Coco Before Chanel the success it is. What may be even more curious is it was written by two women, Camille Fontaine and Anne Fontaine (who also directed).

My One is Only is an ice cream sundae that comes equipped with whip cream and a cherry on top. The whip cream is provided by Mark Rendall’s performance as Robbie, the somewhat swishy younger brother who gets the running gag of always landing the lead in a school play (including Oedipus of all things—what high school does Oedipus Rex) but never actually making it on stage. The cherry is the revelation that the central character in all this, Robbie’s older brother George, is actually a famous movie star—George Hamilton. The ice cream is provided by Renee Zellwegger as Anne Deveraux, a mother who divorces her cheating husband, takes her two kids, and goes gunning for old boyfriends to see if she can marry into money.

She sets her designs on, as has already been pointed out by other critics, a series of actors better known for their TV roles (shades of Julie Andrews as Gertrude Lawrence in Star!). Steven Weber is a hoot as an alcoholic gold digger who sticks Anne with a dinner bill. Eric McCormack has absolutely nothing to do as a rich playboy and proceeds to do absolutely nothing with it. Chris Noth doesn’t quite convince as an abusive army officer. That leaves David Koechner to rule the day in his role as the least sexiest, a charming and sweet natured scion of a wealthy family with a surprise mental problem.

There is nothing that wrong with the movie and the audience seemed to like it the more it went along. But it never quite rises above what it is. Some blame this on Zellweger who many didn’t buy as a fading southern belle. But the problem may lie with the director Richard Loncraine who played every scene of the clever screenplay by Charlie Peters for pathos whereas it might have worked better as a broader comedy, more Christopher Durang’s version of Tennessee Williams rather than Tennessee himself. It might have worked better if Zellweger had based Anne more on Bridget Jones than Blanche Dubois. But there is much to like here and the art direction and period detail help make it all a pleasant enough road trip.

Fanny Brawne is also a designer of clothes and from what I understand, she was suppose to have been known, at least among friends, for her taste. Personally, I found her fashions, as seen in the movie Bright Star, a bio film of her relationship with the poet John Keats, to be rather gaudy and all over the place. The same could not be said of the movie written and directed by Jane Campion. It’s a down to earth, anti-romantic depiction of a very romantic love story set during the romantic period. I greatly admired what Campion did with Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, but I’m afraid I found this to be as dull as any Ivory/Merchant concoction. Even more dishwatery perhaps. I’m not sure why. It could be that the two leads, Abbie Cornish as Fannie and Ben Whishaw as Keats, who seem to be perfectly fine actors, just didn’t have enough fire in their roles. Perhaps this was Champion’s choice as well. Perhaps the last thing she wanted was the grand passion of Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights. But for me, it didn’t even have the restrained sexual tension of a Jane Austen novel. The most interesting performance is given by Paul Schneider as the misogynistic cad Charles Armitage Brown who has the most fascinating line readings of any actor in some time. One almost hates him not just for his lines, but for the way he says them.

So tell me what you think.

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