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Coco in a rare good mood: Tautou in Coco Before Chanel.

Fashion Without Passion

By Laura Leon

Coco Before Chanel

Directed by Anne Fontaine


With a title that sounds like the name of a new fragrance, or a 1970s blue movie, Coco Before Chanel attempts to fill us in on the “aha” moments that helped Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel become one of the most renowned fashion designers ever. As such, it should be a visual and emotional feast, palpable with the idea of couture as artistry, luxury as something that touches a primal core within, well, at least some of us. But instead, director Anne Fontaine, who cowrote the script with her sister Camille, gives us a decidedly turgid depiction, compounded by Audrey Tautou’s grim portrayal of the title role.

As envisioned by Edmonde Charles-Roux, who wrote the book upon which the Fontaines’ based their screenplay, Coco was a fiercely independent woman who, with the financial backing of her rich lovers, sought to replace the confined strictures of corsets and bustles with streamlined, modern forms and fabrics. The movie begins with Coco being dumped off at an orphanage, then fast-forwards several years to when she and her relative (apparently an aunt, although more often she comes across as a sister) sing and dance at bawdy cabarets. While the relative succumbs to love, agreeing to become the mistress of a titled lover whose family will never approve the match, Coco remains pragmatic, finally deigning to move into Etienne Balsan’s country estate when it seems fortuitous to do so.

Initially, Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), a good-natured country squire, treats her as a poor relation, forcing her to dine with the servants and not allowing himself to be seen in public with her. While she’s not in love with him, such insults stick with her, so that when Balsan eventually comes around to caring quite deeply for her, one would expect almost a note of triumph from Coco. But she’s already on to a second lover, Etienne’s good friend Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola), who actually asks Etienne if he can borrow her for their first weekend together. It is Boy who purchases the black fabric and lace with which Coco makes her first little black dress, and it’s one of the film’s many frustrations that Fontaine doesn’t allow us the chance to get a good look at it.

Only with Boy does Coco emerge slightly from her taciturnity, and there’s one—only one—moment in which she evokes completely the way a woman in love feels utterly seductive, powerful and beautiful. And in that moment, she’s wearing silk PJs, a cardigan and a pair of pumps.

Too often, Tautou plays Chanel as an almost-grumpy wet blanket. Instead of breathing air and fire into her character, she relies on Coco’s wardrobe—tailored jodhpurs and bowties cut from Etienne’s own duds, starchy cuffs and collars accenting severe plaid dresses—to do the talking. Throughout, Coco watches and looks, weighing the significance of this accent or that feather, mentally editing the style for which she would become famous. Most of the time, such moments are painted in such broad strokes so as to ensure that the biggest moron in the audience will get the point, as when Coco and Boy stroll along the seaside beaches and observe fisherman in striped jersey tops haul in their catch. The camera goes back and forth from Coco’s intense gaze to the shirts, and wouldn’t you know, the next few scenes show her wearing the same over a slouchy skirt.

Fontaine ends her movie with Coco, alone and on top of the fashion world, gazing with something that looks more like contempt than ennui at models wearing her creations. It’s clearly the postwar period, Coco is wearing the ubiquitous Chanel suit, and the models’ ensembles are timelessly elegant, but where’s the sheer enjoyment of the moment? Are we meant to believe that Coco poured her talents into this endeavor, overcame poverty to become a worldwide success, endured more than a little scandal, only to appear, at the end of the day, just another bored businesswoman? I would gladly have watched scenes in which Coco cut patterns and fitted swaths of silk and chiffon, striving for just the right look, and developing a following. Anything, but this bloodless, joyless interpretation, the cinematic equivalent of a designer knockoff available at Wal-mart.

All That We Could Be

The Men Who Stare at Goats

Directed by Grant Heslov

It’s here. The first official Dirty Fucking Hippie film of the glorious Obama “age of hope” has arrived, courtesy of two of Hollywood’s dirty fucking hippies, George Clooney (who produced and starred) and Grant Heslov (who directed).

This was the duo who made the truth-to-power broadcast news drama Good Night, and Good Luck. Here, they take a popular nonfiction book about the three-decades-long attempt by the U.S. military to apply paranormal knowledge and psychic techniques to warfare, and use it as a jumping-off point to attack the global War on Terror, Iraq War II and Bush-sanctioned torture.

That’s quite an agenda for what is, essentially, a very silly comedy. But what better way to shame the villains who ran this country (and its good name) into the shit, than by laughing at them, and making mock of their “kill ’em all” code of conduct?

The film opens with a disclaimer that “more of this is true” than you might think. The parts that are true are the daffy attempts by the army to train “psychic warriors.” This program hoped to create a class of soldiers who could walk through walls by bending matter with their minds, and kill enemies by staring at them—thus the title, The Men Who Stare at Goats. While this may sound batshit insane to a reasonable lay person, the film takes as its aforementioned starting point that this really is possible—and that, if used for good, these powers can help save the world. Or at least a few endangered goats.

The film shifts back and forth between 2002 Iraq and the early 1970s. In the present day, journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) inadvertently tracks down an ex-Special Forces psychic warrior, Lyn Cassady (Clooney), who just happens to be setting up a contracting business in “liberated” Iraq. In the flashbacks, the journalist relates the story of the New Earth Army, a band of psychic brothers led by soldier turned shaman Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, reminding us of rug enthusiast Dude from The Big Lebowski).

The flashbacks are hilarious and the highlight of the movie, but the present-day story, though thin, is full of funny touches, too. Clooney is wacky but not goofy (as he usually is in the Coen brothers’ films); he must explain to Ewan McGregor “the way of the Jedi,” which is a pretty good joke in itself. Kevin Spacey is on hand as the “snake in the garden,” the one psychic warrior who wants to use his powers for evil. And he’s dead-on, as you’d expect.

The ending may be hopelessly utopian, but after eight years of cinematic vengeance (including Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, arguably the last Bush movie), we’re entitled to a little hope.

Aren’t we?

—Shawn Stone

Almost Compelling

Lorna’s Silence

Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

A simple plan goes awry in Lorna’s Silence, the latest from Belgium’s esteemed auteurs, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Like Rosetta, their 1999 Cannes Palm d’Or winner, Lorna is a grittily realistic portrayal of a young woman living on the margins of society. Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) is an Albanian immigrant who agrees to marry a Belgian drug addict (Jeremie Renier) so she can obtain citizenship, and, as is gradually revealed, open a snack bar with her Albanian boyfriend, Sokol (Alban Ukaj). Lorna receives payment for the marriage from a local thug on the condition that she will subsequently marry a rich Russian who also needs citizenship. The deal first goes bad when the addict, Claudy, makes a sincere effort to quit drugs. Lorna abhors Claudy’s neediness but makes a deal of her own with him: She will help him quit if he agrees to a divorce. The thug does not take kindly to Lorna rearranging his arrangements.

Filmed in a low-budget, documentary style, the film slowly builds interest in the characters, their aspirations, and the fragile trust between them. Though Lorna cares only about earning a living with Sokol, the money that changes hands from the Russian on down carries a treacherous responsibility. But just as the story becomes involving—Lorna’s aloof passivity changes when the men around her start proving their commitment—it abruptly slides into an almost apathetic mysteriousness. While exploring an ideal location for a snack bar, Lorna is doubled over by cramps similar to Claudy’s when he was in withdrawal. From there, the film loses touch with the audience as inexplicably as Lorna loses touch with reality.

—Ann Morrow

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