Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Presto! Coco’s Costumed Life

PARIS — It is a simple thing, this fashion business. You wander around the paddock, spot a polo player in a jersey top, or visit the seashore where fishermen wear striped matelot sweaters — and hey, presto! — there is a style revolution.

Of course, it helps if you are Gabrielle Chanel, abandoned by your father in an orphanage and taught by the nuns to sew and stitch. Although heaven knows what the Mother Superior would have thought of the budding “Coco,” when the young woman earned that nickname by singing a saucy “coquerico” in a dubious nightspot.

“Coco avant Chanel” (Coco Before Chanel) brings fashion’s famous Mademoiselle to life, thanks to the French actress Audrey Tautou, who is alternately charming, cheeky, stubborn and determined.

The story of Coco unfolds like one of those costume dramas beloved as a British television miniseries. There are moments when you wonder whether the director Anne Fontaine has taken references from cinematic moments: those sweeps of lawn and galloping studs (both the horses and their swish male riders), as seen in endless Jane Austen films; the decadent nights of Champagne and sexual intrigue garnered from “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”; and that famous ballroom scene from Visconti’s “Il gattopardo” (The Leopard), revisited with Tautou whirling around in a corsetless dress she ran up that afternoon.

Coco is dancing with the love interest — not the older, sophisticated master of the chateau and its decadent revelry (played with panache by Benoît Poelvoorde) — but with Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola), the dashing English Lordling who is the love of Coco’s life.

When he dies in a vintage car, which is even better looking than the (married) Capel, Coco never touches another man and dedicates herself only to her hats (applause for the British milliner Stephen Jones) and her Chanel fashion house. The movie ends with her sitting in the famous Coco pose on the mirrored stairway at Rue Cambon, watching models wearing Karl Lagerfeld’s latest couture collection.

If Mr. Lagerfeld himself was conspicuously absent from the screening party thrown by Chanel last week, maybe he has had enough of these renditions of the Chanel story? He himself produced last year an imaginative five-minute clip of Coco’s life with the Grand Duke Dimitri, but wisely made it a visual treat and a silent movie.

“Coco avant Chanel” is a pleasant gallop through the well-known story and Ms. Tautou turns in a star performance of moods from truculence to the delirium of love. Yet you can’t help feeling that the most interesting thing about Mademoiselle was her personal vision and the way that her steely elegance was reflected in her taste and style. But the inner workings of a creative mind do not make such a pretty film as pastoral parties and ladies in inflated hats.

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