Wild Women, Tame Movies

Judith Mahoney Pasternak Nov 3, 2009

Coco Avant Chanel (Coco Before Chanel)
Directed by Anne Fontaine
A Warner Bros./France 2 et al. Co-Production, 2009 (in French)

Directed by Mira Nair
Fox Searchlight/Avalon Pictures, 2009

In the 1930s, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971) and Amelia Earhart (1897-1937)—both talented, daring, ambitious, and sexually unconventional—helped crystallize the 20th century’s new freedoms for women. By the time they died, they were iconic symbols of those freedoms.

In France, Chanel shook off earlier generations’ corsets and layers of clothing to design comfortable high fashion that gave its wearers unprecedented mobility. In the United States, Earhart showed the world that women, too, could fly. Chanel had many lovers—sometimes more than one at a time—but never married. Earhart had what today we call an open marriage. For decades, their stories have fascinated biographers and filmmakers alike. Now two directors have tried again to capture their accomplishments on film. Both, in different ways, have fallen short.

It’s a hard task. Few fields that bring fame (beyond performing and warfare) are easily depicted on screen, More successful film biographies have been about singers, actors, and soldiers, than about writers, fashion designers, or civilian flyers. Easier to show—and more likely to captivate audiences—are sex, love, romance, and heartbreak. Many, possibly most, cinebiographers have focused on their subjects’ love lives at the expense of their careers.

In Coco Avant Chanel, France’s Anne Fontaine finesses the biopic problem by telling the story of her subject’s life before she achieved fame. Like many poor young French women late in the 19th century, young Gabrielle Chanel worked in a tailor shop by day and as a café singer at night; like her more successful peers, she eventually gained a rich man’s protection—in her case, one who introduced her to the world of actors and performers. She cut her lover’s clothes down to fit her so she could ride astride instead of side-saddle. She took to making hats for his woman friends.

Then she fell seriously in love. The longest part of the film relates a passionate affair that ended with the death of the man she loved, breaking her heart. The rest, as they say, was history, but a history skimpily related in one scene and one afterword at the end of the film. With the luminous yet forceful Audrey Tatou in the title role, Coco leaps from Chanel’s first hat shop just after World War I to her first runway fashion show in the 1930s without depicting the intervening work, or the radical nature of the fashions she designed. It’s a romantic and engaging love story, but it makes only the most half-hearted attempt to place its subject in her proper place in history. (By ending the film in the early ’30s, Fontaine also avoids Chanel’s collaboration with the Germans during the occupation of France.)

Mira Nair, the distinguished Indian-born director of Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala, and Monsoon Wedding, has tried to avoid the romance pitfall with Amelia. Earhart’s life and death would seem to have contained enough—and diverse enough—drama for several films. Captivated by flying at an early age, Earhart scaled barrier after barrier to become the “Queen of the Air” at 30 and then the wife of celebrity-publisher George Putnam and a friend to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, only to disappear over the Pacific Ocean during an attempt to fly around the world just before her 40th birthday.

Attempting to relate that in less than two hours, Nair races through Earhart’s life at supersonic speed. Framed within Earhart’s final flight, the film moves so quickly that even Oscar-winning Hilary Swank as Earhart gets few chances to convey any deep emotion (with the occasional exception of flying sequences that do show Earhart’s exhilaration in the air). Richard Gere as Putnam manages a convincing show of passion for Earhart, but her feelings for him remain opaque. Most significantly, however, it’s not made clear that the new world of flying simply had no room for women until, with two decades of arduous work, Earhart carved out a space for herself and the women who came after her.

Neither movie is worthy of its subject. But if you like romance, you’re more likely to get your money’s worth with Coco Avant Chanel.

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