July 16, 2009

Coco Avant Chanel (2009)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 11:39 pm
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Director: Anne Fontaine
105 min


Starting in 1893, then the early part of the twentieth century. Gabrielle and her sister Antoinette are sent to an orphanage in Aubazine after their mother dies. Their father never visits, whilst Gabrielle doesn’t seem to fit in with the other children. After leaving, the sisters sing in a bar, attracting the attention of numerous male admirers. Gabrielle, now nicknamed ‘Coco’ after her signature song, receives the admiration of the millionaire playboy Etienne Balsan, who organizes an audition for her at the Alcazar in Paris after her sister becomes engaged to a baron but she is rejected.

Coco visits Etienne in Paris. He wants to keep her there as his ‘geisha’ and is reluctant to introduce her to his friends in high society. Undeterred, she gatecrashes a countryside picnic and Balsan’s friends are charmed by her eccentricity and individuality. She meets Arthur Capel, an English businessman and they fall in love, but unknown to Coco, Capel is engaged to an heiress in England. As Parisian high society falls for Coco’s individual style, she sets up a fashion house in Paris, financed by Capel. They maintain an affair but Capel soon dies in a car accident. As an epilogue, Coco’s success in the fashion world is documented.


After the financial and critical success of ‘La Vie en Rose’ (2007), the biopic of Edith Piaf, both domestically and internationally, it was perhaps inevitable that it would be closely followed by films cut from the same cloth. Hot on its heels comes ‘Coco Avant Chanel’, a conventional and elegant biopic of another famous, successful French woman of the twentieth century, the influential fashion designer, Coco Chanel. Starring Audrey Tautou, who revived French cinema as an internationally commercial entity in ‘Amelie’, there’s every chance it’ll succeed not just in its homeland, but also abroad, even more so given that film studios across the world seem to have suddenly woken up to the fact that half their audiences are female and ‘Coco Avant Chanel’ certainly chases this demographic.

Perhaps wisely, director Anne Fontaine decides not to cover Chanel’s entire life but to document her early years, before she became the iconic name Chanel is today. Instead, Fontaine concentrates on her childhood and early adulthood; from the Aubazine orphanage to the early establishment of her fashion house. It’s a rags to riches tale from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of the fashion world, challenging its male hegemony. Even though Coco herself is an independent spirit, defying convention, for dramatic effect no doubt, at the heart of the film is the influence upon her early life of two men who consider themselves prospective admirers; Etienne Balsan, who shows her a world of glamour and high society, and Arthur Capel, a dashing Englishman who wins her heart and from whose death, she seems destined to never recover.

It’s likely that the film will be sold equally on the premise of a romantic drama as it is a genuine look at a woman finding her way in life, succeeding in a man’s world. For a proto-feminist who professes to have no interest in love or men, Coco is disarmed by Capel’s looks and charms exceptionally easily, although the film makers will no doubt tell you it’s a tender, tragic romance that shaped Coco’s life irrevocably. Perhaps so, but with both corny scenes of love-making and dialogue (at a dance, she says to him “every woman is looking at you”, to which he responds, “no, they’re looking at you”), it’s sometimes difficult not to drive your fingernails into your palms in frustration at how clichéd it all becomes.

Part of the issue with ‘Coco Avant Chanel’ is precisely how tasteful and stylish it is to the point where it’s perfectly anodyne. The costumes, locations and production levels are all fine as you’d expect in a film about fashion but the film’s just lacking bite and substance. It’s suffocated by its middlebrow ways, has no real dramatic arc, no real reason to root for these people, no real reason to well… Perhaps it’s too reverential to its subject, portraying Coco as nothing overly complicated or real, with unconvincing shifts in personality (changing from a headstrong young woman to a lover in a nanosecond) and not wishing to scratch beyond the surface or address any more subtle characteristics. That’s the nature of the beast with biopics generally though; why would film makers want to orchestrate a character assassination? Still, this doesn’t excuse such a limp oversight of Coco’s early years.

To be fair, the cast give it all they’ve got. Tautou’s an engaging, hypnotic presence as always (and not yet tempted to Hollywood like Marion Cotillard for instance) and the supporting cast, including Benoit Poelvoorde as Balsan are perfectly fine. ‘Coco Avant Chanel’ sits nicely into the category of one of those films where everything is ‘right’, there’s nothing technically or even objectively to criticise, but one’s overall feelings about the films arises solely from a subjective decision. There’s nothing to set it apart from other films of its ilk – the shadow of ‘La Vie en Rose’ hangs over it as though it would never have been produced without the latter’s success. It’s competent, comfortable, safe film making, but who genuinely wants that? For all that one can admire about it, ‘Coco Avant Chanel’ can probably be summed up perfectly in one five letter word….bland.


July 12, 2009

50 Years of Revolution and Cuban Cinema

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the revolution in Cuba that overthrew the Batista regime and propelled Fidel Castro into power, Mr Bongo Films has released a boxset of the best examples of post-revolutionary cinema, starting from ‘I Am Cuba’ (1964) and ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ (1994). The boxset includes the best work of the most well known Cuban directors; Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Humberto Solas. Nicely coinciding with the release is a season of films at the Barbican Cinema, London, taking place between 3-9 July, which includes ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’ from this boxset and also a series of overlooked Cuban films. Both this season and this boxset covers a national cinema that has been neglected in the past, despite Latin American cinema generally receiving much critical interest, and showcases the vibrancy of the Cuban people and culture but also the legacy of revolution and the constant role of politics in the country.

Directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, whose ‘The Cranes Are Flying’ (1959) had been a Palme D’Or winner, ‘I Am Cuba’ is a joint Soviet-Cuban production; a love-letter if you like to the revolution. Filmed in documentary style, it’s a series of vignettes about the Batista regime that made revolution ultimately inevitable. As you’d imagine given the global political climate, the film embodies certain Cold War prejudices. The great evil influence upon the Batista regime is the United States. With Kalatozov’s typically melodramatic style, we see the United States exploit Cuba at every turn; businessmen “buy” Cuban women, whilst American corporations undermine Cuban agriculture. The victims are the simple Cuban people; let down by the Batista regime, to be rescued by Castro. It’s simple political propaganda designed to entrench support for the revolution, but it’s produced so masterfully and impressively that the bias can almost be overlooked. ‘I Am Cuba’ is also notable for the director’s demonstration of technical skill. There’s one elaborate and celebrated sequence that still evokes wide-eyed wonder today – the camera begins on a hotel rooftop observing a beauty pageant, then slinks down towards the swimming pool below, finishing underwater. Its reputation has grown in recent years thanks to the support of film makers like Martin Scorsese; justifiably so.

Lucia (1968), directed by Humberto Solas, is one of the first completely Cuban productions, and like ‘I Am Cuba’, it examines Cuba’s recent past to demonstrate perhaps how things have improved since revolution. It is a triptych film, divided into three historical periods; the 1890s, the 1930s and the 1960s. In each period, Solas considers the experiences of a single female character, Lucia. The first period feels influenced by Visconti’s ‘Senso’ – Lucia falls in love with a Spanish spy, Rafael, who reciprocates her affections purely to undermine the rebels. Rafael’s betrayals ultimately sends her made. The second period features a love triangle between Lucia and two lovers; Aldo, a revolutionary and Batista, who as we know, later betrays the revolution. In the final period, Lucia is a newly married woman in the countryside where reactionary attitudes to women hold sway. She is liberated and educated by a touring teacher. These are private stories with great political consequences. Solas pinpoints important periods in Cuba’s history; how it arrived at its destiny from decolonisation and how its people have been freed and specifically considers the role of women within society.

‘Memories of Underdevelopment’ (1968), directed by the most famous of all Cuban directors, Tomas Gutierrez Alea, is perhaps the most well known Cuban film internationally. In the immediate aftermath of revolution, much of the Cuban bourgeoisie departed for Miami, including the family of the film’s narrator and subject, Sergio, a jaded and uninspired writer, whose womanising eventually lands him in a spot of bother. Whilst his intellectual friends bemoan the decline of Cuba, Sergio remains impartial, ambivalent about his support for the revolution but recognising that under Batista, things were at breaking point. The underdevelopment of the title relates to Cuba and its people – it’s a political, cultural and personal phenomenon. Caught in the middle of Cold War politics, between the United States and the Soviet Union, Alea ends on an ominous note, with mobilisation because of the impending Cuban Missile Crisis. Perhaps the most radical, technically accomplished of all Cuban films, it’s reminiscent of what Glauber Rocha was doing in Brazil at the time; capturing the essence of a nation during political turbulence but completely rewriting the language of cinema in that country, revitalising it, shaking it from the inhibitions of the past.

Alea, in collaboration with Juan Carlos Tabio, directed perhaps the most well known Cuban film after the initial movement of film making in the 1960s, ‘Strawberry and Chocolate’. It’s notable for being the first Cuban film to seriously tackle the subject of homosexuality, which is admirable in itself given the past record of the Castro regime. Diego, the overtly gay intellectual who tries to seduce David, the fiery, pro-Castro student, isn’t a camp stereotype but a nicely well developed character who has found himself harassed and isolated because of his sexual orientation. What starts as a comic attempt at seduction becomes an exchange of political ideas, debating and challenging the exact philosophies upon which the Castro regime is based. Alea and Tabio avoid the sentimentality that the film could easily lapse into; it’s both a believable and moving relationship that develops between David and Diego and there’s a refreshing look at the past record towards homosexuals – Diego’s been in labour/re-education camps and still set in the period before homosexuality was finally decriminalised, it points to an uncertain future. It’s a brave film that tackles a taboo subject and was the first Cuban film to be nominated for an Academy Award and rounds off an impressive and important collection of films about post-revolutionary Cuba.

The 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution boxset is released on Mr Bongo Films on 13 July

July 5, 2009

Shirin (2008)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 11:28 am
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Director: Abbas Kiarostami
92 min


An Iranian cinema. 114 Iranian actresses and a French actress, Juliette Binoche, mutely watch a Kiarostami film ‘Shirin’, based on the epic poem. With subsequent, quickly edited shots with a fixed camera, Kiarostami observes the reactions of these actresses to the film. The film is invisible to the audience, although it can be heard.


Although Kiarostami has been making films for several decades, since the production of ‘Where Is The Friend’s House?’ (1987), he has been consistently audacious and creative, reeling off masterpieces with some ease, especially with a run of films in the 1990s that included ‘Close Up’ (1990) and ‘Taste of Cherry’ (1997). Although his films have always been intellectual exercises, known mainly for being consistently self-reflexive, recently Kiarostami has entered more esoteric terrain, challenging cinematic forms and conventions. Perhaps never has Kiarostami been more daring in his narrative approach than with ‘Shirin’, a film that some have described as being more appropriate as an art installation than mere cinema.

The roots of ‘Shirin’ are in ‘Where Is My Romeo?’, Kiarostami’s contribution to the 2007 anthology ‘To Each His Own Cinema’, which used a “film the audience” conceit. ‘Shirin’ expands and develops this idea, but increases the significance and impact of his film by his choice of audience. As has been documented in each review of ‘Shirin’, Kiarostami’s ‘audience’ is over a hundred Iranian actresses, as well as the French actress Juliette Binoche. This ‘audience’ watches a cinematic adaptation of the famous Persian historical poem about Khosrow and Shirin, but of course, we, the second ‘audience’ don’t see the film, although it is audible. Kiarostami films the expressions and reactions of his actresses; a combination of joy, horror, surprise and sadness. There’s some important technical and stylistic aspects to note. First, it’s believed that the actresses aren’t even watching a ‘film’, but that Kiarostami elicited their reactions through merely using three dots on an otherwise blank sheet of paper (presumably with the sound of the ‘film’ composed and then added in post-production?). This is typical of the director to subvert the norms of film making. Kiarostami is ever so conscious of the artificiality of cinema. Even when his films seem
ostensibly ‘realist’ and deal with very real subject matter, there are always moments that undermine this and that remind us that this is a film. ‘Shirin’ is no exception.

‘Shirin’ has a narrative that’s difficult to define or identify. It is more of a tableaux; a series of static, close-up shots of the faces of these actresses as they react to what they watch. There’s no deviation from this method as Kiarostami spends a handful of seconds observing one actress before moving onto another. The use of the face as the means of giving ‘Shirin’ its momentum is incredibly significant. There’s surely a reference to Dreyer’s ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ as he gives his actresses full rein to outpour their emotions, but more importantly, this method allows him to subtly consider the role and position of women in contemporary Iranian society. Kiarostami’s actresses wear headscarves (although a couple seem to remove them during the ‘film’), a garment considered by some to hide the face of the woman wearing it. Yet Kiarostami is celebrating the female face, almost liberating it from the headscarf and demonstrating the emotional and intellectual complexity of women. Is Shirin, a tragic literary heroine, herself a symbol for Iranian women? Where ‘Ten’ began an overt interest in the standing of women in a patriarchal society, ‘Shirin’ continues. There are men watching this film but they are marginalised, barely in shot or focus. It’s not their film.

There will be inevitable reservations by some about ‘Shirin’ given the experimental nature of the film. Some will question how a film with this premise can play out for ninety minutes; that it falls into repetition. It’s a valid point but what the viewer gets out from ‘Shirin’ correlates to what the viewer puts in. Yes, ‘Shirin’ is a very demanding film but at the same time, it’s remarkably rewarding if the viewer is willing to engage with it and appreciate the director’s intentions. The current critical reaction to the film has been fairly mixed thus far, with Kiarostami accused of self-indulgent posturing by some, although it’s not an opinion I share. It’s a conceptual piece for sure, and whether that means it belongs in a gallery rather than a cinema is open for debate, although writing it off as a tedious, pretentious exercise means that the more vital aspects of ‘Shirin’ will be all too easily overlooked. As for the issues regarding only hearing the ‘film’, not seeing it – it’s not that important as the ‘film’ itself is almost a MacGuffin, merely a device to allow Kiarostami to subvert narrative techniques and pay homage to Iranian women. It’ll remain divisive and a critical talking point, but that’s no bad thing.

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