COCO BEFORE CHANEL
I seem to be very fortunate this week, in that I am finding one spectacular film after another. Coco Before Chanel is not flashy. It is not a "highlights reel" like other biopics. The title says it all, following Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel in the years prior to her making a name for herself in the fashion world. She sings, she sews, she dismisses the idea of love, she gains two lovers, c'est la vie.
Audrey Tautou's lead performance is deeply magnetic; you understand her strength, and you cannot help but be drawn to her. Benoit Poelvoorde plays her wealthy lover Etienne, a boorish man with old-fashioned ideas who both loves Coco and does not understand her. Alessandro Nivola is a sexy "Boy" Capel, Coco's British lover. Emmanuelle Devos is delightful and frustrating as an actress who still clings to the corsets and flowery chapeaux of the era, yet finds herself intrigued by Coco's more comfortable designs. The costumes are, as expected, exquisite. Alexandre Desplat's score is the perfect capper to an unbelievably great year for the composer.
Stripped of the biopic conventions, Coco Before Chanel becomes a period romance about a poor orphan girl and the rich men who love her. And that's not to suggest that co-writer/director Anne Fontaine and co-writer Camille Fontaine (are they related?) over-romanticized or insignificantized Coco's story. If, like me, you are a fan of Howards End or A Room with a View, than Coco Before Chanel should sit quite nicely with you.
THE YOUNG VICTORIA
The Young Victoria is by no means perfect. It's fifteen minutes short of being two hours, and you can feel it. The conflict involving the effect her friendship with Lord Melbourne is never explored deeply enough for the audience to get a real sense of it. The politics of the era are explained constantly and vaguely, so that you kind of understand the issues without really knowing what's going on. It ends too quickly, and there's a scene near the end in which Victoria flies into a justifiable rage at Albert, then goes off into a strange ego trip that undercuts the good point she was making. So Albert never has to apologize, but Victoria does. It's very strange.
That said, the film boasts fine performances from all its actors. Emily Blunt is a surprisingly warm Victoria, headstrong yet without confidence in her abilities. Rupert Friend continues to prove himself the greatest find of the season -- his Albert is adorable, smitten with the Queen, seeing her as his equal, comfortable with his role of house-husband. The chemistry between them had me completely. The gazebo scene, the proposal scene, the final scene: wonderful. When the film focuses on the two of them, we get one of the best movies of the year. Though Paul Bettany and Miranda Richardson are always wonderful to watch, and I was thrilled to see Mark Strong and Rachael Stirling yet again. Also, the costumes are beautiful, and Jean-Marc Vallee has a strange yet effective eye behind the camera.
I had some reservations about the film, sure. It's great, it just needs some room to breathe. The end is too rushed; a little over two hours would have been a suitable running time. It might have even given us more Victoria and Albert, and that is always a delight.
Penelope Cruz is beautiful and typically incredible. The cinematography, costumes and production design are beautiful. But good Lord this movie is long. It drags on and on and on. The movie cuts between 1994 and 2008, as a blind writer/director recalls his affair with Penelope Cruz. Well fuck 2008. The movie is way more interesting in 1994, and the 2008 scenes add little to the story...besides de-mystifying some of the more intriguing elements of the piece. There's a huge chunk of magnificence, but the last half-hour just kills it for me. Ultimately: a disappointment.