September 27, 2009

Audrey Tautou in Coco avant Chanel

 Audrey Tautou as Coco Chanel in Coco avant Chanel.

Coco Before Chanel

One suspects that a role like Amelie, of the 2001 movie that turned Audrey Tautou into an international star, would make an actor easy to dismiss. But in Coco avant Chanel, Tautou channels a tough-as-nails determination as iconic fashion designer Coco Chanel that is worlds away from the impish, scheming gamine Amelie Poulain. For Tautou, it's all in the eyes: in Amelie, they were forever twinkling with delight, sharing a private wink with the audience. In Dirty Pretty Things (2002), she played a Turkish refugee in London seeking to sell her kidney on the black market. Throughout the film, her eyes were frightened but alert, betraying a victimized woman who could never let her guard down. Her transformation into Chanel is once again characterized by the way she uses those big dark eyes. There is nary a trace of a shrinking violet here, on the contrary, the directness and intensity of her gaze is almost startling.

Tautou dancing with Alessandro Nivola, who plays her lover Arthur Capel.

A rare biopic that doesn't let the narrative zig and zag by tracing its subject's highs and lows, much of the film finds pre-fame, pre-designer Chanel staying at the estate of her patron Etienne de Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), who literally makes her sing for her supper. Slowly, she acquaints herself with high society life. With her keen eye, she studies the lifestyles and fashion of the privileged, observing their lavish gatherings and the various accouterments that materialize with each excuse to party. Intuiting that the fussy and constricting styles of the time needed to be shaken up, she gradually cuts a path for herself in the fashion world with her straw hats and stark, austere outfits. To see her dancing in a corset-free black dress amid a sea of white lace, feathers, and frou-frou flowers is to fully understand just how groundbreaking her style was. The act of observing and learning, then, becomes a gateway to her success, and modern style as we know it.

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