Coco Avant Chanel
Released June 25, 2009
It’s a rags-to-riches story made for the big screen: the story of a self-made success. At the age of eleven, after their mother dies, Gabrielle Chanel and her sister Arianne are taken by their father to live in a convent. He never returns for them. The sisters grow up self-sufficient, plucky – once out of the convent, they dip their toes in the seamier side of down-and-out bohemia, working as poseuses in a bawdy beer hall; after being tested by misfortune and the temptations of the opposite sex, Chanel (Audrey Tatou) returns to her true calling: fashion. She becomes a self-sufficient success.
Director Anne Fontaine’s story begins in the father’s cart, on its way to the convent, and ends as Chanel watches one of her first fashion parades from the stairs of the Maison Chanel – and there is a certain symmetry to that beginning and ending – a loneliness in the eyes, a watchfulness, an isolation.
What happens in between is based on the work of Edmonde Charles-Roux, considered one of Chanel’s best biographers. Director Anne Fontaine follows the logical threads of history and Chanel’s personality, to give the impression of a woman completely of the moment, or Zeitgeist. In a world dominated by men, Chanel insisted that women be afforded equivalent sartorial comfort and dignity. She wore the clothes of her lovers, appropriating them and translating them for something more elegant and feminine, but entirely simple and functional.
At the same time, Chanel was pragmatic, fond of money, and opportunistic. With no money or education, armed with only her skills as a seamstress, her indomitable personality, innate elegance, and sharp mind, she latches on to a series of romantic opportunities – the first being the aristocrat Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde).
Coco acquires the aristocratic graces necessary to pass in “good society” and her first customers from Balsan’s world; she gets the funding for her Rue Cambon business from her married lover, Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola). Fontaine does not present Chanel as entirely self-aware – we see her survival instincts battling with her heart, and her head: can she be happy living as a kept woman in Balsan’s castle? I really got the impression that it was fear of vulnerability rather than a burning desire to shape tweed that got Chanel out of rural aristocracy and into her own shop on Rue Cambon in Paris.
As a character study, an artefact of social mores, and a biopic of one of fashion’s great innovators, Coco Avant Chanel is very satisfying. It also serves as a reminder that many fashion icons grow out of the act of rebellion. Throughout, Alexandre Desplat’s score sparkles with the tiny glimmerings of prescience that a biopic is afforded: the seeds of greatness germinating.
Released July 2, 2009
Glendyn Ivin made the poignantly nostalgic short film Crackerbag, which won the Golden Palm at Cannes in 2003. Since then, Ivin has built a solid repertoire of commercials – most of which you will recognise: the red ball of string, for Tourism Victoria; the Bega “best cheese sandwich ever.”
For his feature debut, Ivin has transposed Deborah Sweeney’s elliptical novel Last Ride to a road trip through the stunning geography of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. Where Sweeney’s story about a dysfunctional father-son relationship left off, Ivin’s film kept going: imagining what those two characters would do next. Where were they heading; where was that relationship heading?
There is a heart-breaking emotional authenticity to the performances from Hugo Weaving as the malevolent father Kev, and Tom Russell as ten-year old Chook. Weaving seems to have either lived his part, or studied it very closely – from the Broken Hill drawl and corner-pub idiom to little details like the flickering fingertips of someone used to collecting the dregs from other rollies and recycling them in a fresh filter paper.
There is an ever present tug-of war between Kev and Chook, the tension stemming from an unseen act of violence at the beginning of the film, involving Kev and his friend Max. The film’s atmosphere is thick with barely constrained aggression, as before a storm breaks – punctuated by Kev’s violent outbursts, usually against his son.
Ivin seems fascinated by the toxic effects that fathers can have on sons, through the generations. Kev talks about his father taking him out to the bush when he was a kid, and leaving him alone there, to teach him a lesson – an anecdote with augurs badly for Chook. “I had to walk all night and day to find someone.”
Conversely, when Chook holds a rock over the sleeping Kev’s head, and he opens his eyes, they don’t even register surprise – which bodes ill for the relationship. Maybe sons are destined to hate their fathers. Maybe kids are doomed to repeat the parents’ mistakes.
At the same time, it is the complicated intimacy between the two that makes the film so compelling. We see Chook recoil from Kev’s cruelty, and reflexively, loyally snap back to his side. However, the young boy becomes almost a different person over the course of the film: he takes a step towards adulthood, or rather a giant leap – away from Kev. While the film moves inexorably towards its tragic, necessary ending, the strength of this film is really in the journey.
If Ivin’s training in documentary film is evident in naturalistic performances and intimate stubble-grazing close-ups, then the film is also marked by dramatic landscapes and stunning wide shots, like a tiny figure in a red hoodie, huddled against the vast, salt white expanse of Lake Eyre. In this sense, at least, it’s a pleasure to watch!