Coco Before Chanel

"I'm the only one with Chanel couture. Let them kiss my buttons." -Patsy Stone, Absolutely Fabulous

How does an ingénue capitalize on her first movie's success -- the one that makes her a household name, and a star? You must have the following materials in stock (Hope Davis, are you reading this?): the actress must be savvy enough to know what her strengths and limitations are; the script either captures the zeitgeist, or tells a mild, widely accessible story; and the director, somehow, finds a way to unveil the muse. Apart from employing a fame-hungry entourage, that magical combination of actress/script/director, which shapes the audience's initial reception of the ingénue, all depends upon her ability to choose the next, right film (see Audrey Hepburn vs. Jean Seberg).

When Shirley MacLaine walks in front of the camera for the first time in Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry (1955), her lack of artifice, coupled with her natural quirkiness, beams right through the drab housedress she sports; her movements are calm and confident -- she's ready for trouble. By the time Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960) is released, MacLaine has added a layer of complexity to our original impression of her. The ingénue has to grow up at some point. MacLaine, instead of running from that fact, allows a fragility into her performance, and her cinematic evolution begins.

With the release of Coco Before Chanel, we are confronted with a shock: where on earth did Audrey Tautou's charm and vitality go? It's been torn to shreds, and all for the sake of a rote, dreary biopic that borrows its narrative arc from La Vie en Rose (2007), but lacks that film's color and passion. (Marion Cotillard won the Best Actress Oscar that year for her performance as Edith Piaf). In Amélie (2001), Tautou, a rail-thin waif with a mischievous grin that did nothing but embolden her, captured the attention of every art house moviegoer that year. The audience rooted for her character, and longed for Amélie to get her man.

Clearly wanting to be more than an endearing gamine, Tautou was part of an ensemble cast in Stephen Frears' gritty London-based drama Dirty Pretty Things (2002). She succeeded in the role of a Turkish immigrant, in part, because the film doesn't solely depend upon her performance. However, it wasn't until last year's Priceless, that Tautou landed a role which accesses the charm we first recognized, and then inverts that very same girlish charm by placing it in the character of a high-class prostitute. This film recognized her range, and her limitations; Tautou succeeds as a comedienne, whether the subject is light or dark.

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But as Coco Chanel, Tautou is as rigid and humorless as a corset, unable to breathe life into the character. The director, Anne Fontaine, frames her subject, in at least three scenes, as a lone figure out of a painting by a realist Magritte: center stage, black-hatted and staring out into the middle distance. This kind of mournful sighing didn't work for Natalie Wood in the 1960s; it doesn't work any better now. The script wreaks of melodrama, and the direction is strangely tepid, as if everyone involved were intent on making a dull history lesson. (The brave exception is Emmanuelle Devos: she steals the film with her innate wit and intelligence).

Chanel, the woman, became a fashion icon because she altered the way women wore their clothes, from constraint to comfort. After the success of La Vie en Rose, whose timeline roughly parallels that of Coco Before Chanel, the producers must have thought Amélie + Chanel = box-office pearls. Whereas Marion Cotillard's performance is heartbreaking, Tautou never manages to do more than wield a thimble well. Perhaps it is unfair to compare the two performances: it's more compelling to watch a heroin-addicted songbird stumble across a stage, than it is to watch someone sew. The last shot of the film, a close-up, suggests that Tautou's face will become more interesting as she ages. I will be on the lookout for her again, but in a role that's, well, better tailored to suit her.

Coco Before Chanel opens October 2, 2009.