Coco Before Chanel (2009)

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Before Chanel no. 5 and the interlocking Cs, and before the iconic quilted bag and the classic Chanel suit there was Gabrielle Chanel, an orphan whose unorthodox fashion sense revolutionized the way we dress. And in the French film (with English subtitles) Coco Before Chanel we learn of Coco Chanel’s early years.

Gabrielle Chanel’s life began quite humbly. As the film commences, young Gabrielle Chanel, along with her sister, are left at a Catholic orphanage by their father. Though Gabrielle’s childhood seemed bleak, she did learn how to sew, and the simple austerity of the nun’s habits influences her design aesthetic. Years, later and now played by Audrey Tatou, Gabrielle is working as a seamstress at a dress shop and singing at a cabaret with her sister.

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While singing in the cabaret, Gabrielle meets Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), a man of considerable wealth. They strike up a friendship and he bestows her with the nickname, Coco, the name of a song she and her sister often sing. Before long Coco becomes his erstwhile mistress. She thinks his wealth may be beneficial in improving her life. Before long she is living with Balsan at his country estate.

Coco isn’t in love with Balsan, yet she bristles when he calls her his “geisha” and doesn’t appreciate when he tries to keep her hidden in the kitchen when he’s entertaining guests. Coco is not the type of femme to be ignored, and she finally asserts herself and introduces herself to Balsan’s friends.

One of Balsan’s friends is an actress and former lover Emilienne (Emmanuelle Devos). Emilienne grows fond of Coco, and is quite intrigued by her odd dress sense. At a time where women wore elaborate dresses and hats, overdone with lace, ribbons, plumes, flowers and other accessories, Coco’s simple, menswear-inspired designs were truly avant garde. But Emilienne grows to love Coco’s look, and begins to support Coco’s fashion endeavors.

At this time Coco also meets and falls in love with one of Balsan’s friends, Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola), a wealthy English man. Boy adores Coco but he won’t marry her. He is betrothed to another. Not surprisingly, Coco is not happy with this news, and she makes sure Capel provides with enough money to set up her own dress shop. Coco may never share his last name, but she’ll be damned if she gets nothing out of the love affair.

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Throughout the film, we get brief flashes on Coco’s fashion influences. She cuts up Balsan’s ties, suits and shirts to fit her petite figure. She lounges around in men’s pajamas. While at the sea, she notices the fishermen’s striped jerseys, and soon they become part of her look. In another pivotal scene, we see Coco at a dress shop, administering instructions to the shopkeeper on the kind of dress she wants, black, and no corset underneath. Voila, the little black dress, the mainstay of every woman’s wardrobe, is created.

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It is these moments I wish Coco Before Chanel would have focused on. Only rarely do we get to see Coco become the Coco Chanel in scenes where she is draping and cutting of fabric, making hats and finding inspiration for her designs. I do wish the film focused more on the emerging designer, and not the romantic melodramatics among Coco, Balsan and Boy Capel. The romantic melodramatics stunted the film, and made it come across like another costume drama you might find on PBS. This narrative isn’t exactly original, and if Coco Chanel was anything it was original.

Though I’m sure Coco’s personal life was interesting, I wanted it in smaller doses. It was Coco’s ascent as a fashion designer and laser-focused work ethic on creating her clothing and her brand that I wanted to see. We do get a brief glimpse of this at the end when Coco presents one of her collections at her atelier in Paris. But these scenes are all too fleeting. Perhaps what is needed is a sequel, Coco After Chanel. Mais oui?

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Blame It On Fidel (2006)

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It’s 1970s France, and little nine year old Anna (Nina Kervel-Bey) lives a charmed life. She resides in Paris with her journalist mother, Marie (Julie Depardieu), lawyer father, Fernando (Stefano Accorsi) and little brother, Francois (Benjamin Feuillet). She is adored by her grandparents who make their home in a grand estate in the French countryside. As Blame It On Fidel begins, we see Nina at a family wedding, outfitted in an immaculate frock, and schooling her lesser cousins on the proper way to cut a piece of fruit with a knife and fork.

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However, Nina’s life is about to get topsy-turvy. Her father, originally from Spain, takes in his sister and her daughter after his brother-in-law disappears under Franco’s fascist regime. Doing this alters Nina’s parents’ priorities. Fernando begins to focus his new radicalized politics on his law practice. Marie, stops writing superficial articles for Marie Claire, and begins to write articles about serious women’s issues, including the thorny topic of abortion.

Nina doesn’t care about any of these things. She just knows her life has been changed completely. And she doesn’t like it. Her beloved nanny, Filomena, is let go only to be replaced by a string of different nannies (including one who provides the title of the film). Her family moves from their huge home to a cramped apartment. Bearded, smoking radicals are always around taking up her parents’ time. And Nina is removed from her beloved religion class at school.

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The movie is seen mostly through Nina’s nine-year-old eyes. She doesn’t care about what’s going on in the world. She just wants things to go back to the way they were. Sure, she’s self-absorbed, but so are most children. They want security and stability. They don’t care about “sticking it to the Man.”

And what makes Blame It On Fidel most effective is how it is shot at a child’s eye level. This is most evident when little Nina is dragged along with her parents to take part in a political demonstration. All Nina can see are legs, arms and feet. She is too small to see the faces of the protesting adults. And when things get out of hand, and tear gas fills the streets, you feel Nina’s fear and confusion.

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Blame It On Fidel is superbly directed by Julie Gravras, herself the daughter of lefty movie director Costas-Gravras. This is a film that could easily be grim and one-dimensional  but a has wry humor and a bittersweet sentiment. Nina’s parents may want to change the world, but their love for her will never waver. And perhaps once Nina gets older, she will realize this.

All the performances are wonderfully acted. But Miss Kervel-Bey is astounding as young Nina, her serious face and intense eyes conveying so much. With a lesser talent, Nina might come across as bratty and spoiled, but Kervel-Bey gives this young character a heart and soul the movie so richly deserves.

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Blame It On Fidel is not rated, and is in French with English subtitles.

Caterina in the Big City (2005)

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Mix Mean Girls with a political satire that skewers both the left and the right, and what do you get? You get Caterina in the Big City, an Italian movie that is both a whip-smart comedy and poignant drama.

Caterina’s (winningly played by Alice Teghil) idyllic life is uprooted when her father gets a transfer from a small Italian seaside town where he’s a teacher to a bigger assignment in the capitol of Rome. Caterina’s father Giancarlo (Sergio Catellitto) has more on his mind than grading papers and passing out homework. Giancarlo sees himself as an intellectual and novelist, and believes being among the sophisticates of Rome will garner him the success he has always felt he’s deserved.

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Caterina’s family settles in a Rome apartment where her meek and under-appreciated mother (Margherita Buy) takes care of Giancarlo’s ailing aunt. As Giancarlo prepares for his ascent into the literary and intellectual world, Caterina tries to gain her footing at her new school and its confusing social mores. On the left are the alterna-chicks, the offspring of leftist radicals. On the right are the popular girls, the daughters of right wing movers and shakers. Both parties throw bitchy barbs at each other as Caterina sits at her desk wondering if she’ll ever make friends.

At first, Caterina befriends Margherita (Carolina Iaqueniello) whose parents are liberal activists. Before long Caterina is experimenting with drinking, smoking and attending street protests. Giancarlo hopes his daughter’s new friendship will help elevate his career. But Margherita’s parents reject him as a lightweight, and Giancarlo forbids Caterina from seeing Margherita and her other grungy pals. It’s just as well as these girls got Caterina drunk on cheap vodka and tried to give her a tattoo.

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The class queen bees, helmed by Daniela (Federica Sbrenna), soon take Caterina under their fashion plate wings. Daniela is the daughter of an extreme right wing politician and a mother who is usually nursing a hangover. Hanging out with Daniela, Caterina is transformed from a wholesome girl to a sex pot, and is also introduced to shoplifting, night clubs, and flirting with men nearly twice her age. Initially, Caterina is enthralled with this glamorous life, but soon grows despondent, especially after one of Daniela’s cousins rejects her for being low class And when she sees Daniela’s family sing fascist songs at a wedding reception, Caterina realizes with friends like these who needs enemies?

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By the end, Caterina gains some much earned wisdom and maturity. The best person to be is oneself, and the real Caterina is a pretty awesome individual. Sadly, for her father, this lesson comes a little too late, and he deals with yet another rejection.

Directed by Paolo Virzi, Caterina in the Big City is brutal in its skewering of the excesses of both the left and right, but it’s also an affective coming of age story that truthfully conveys wanting to belong is something we never quite grow out of.

Caterina in the Big City is unrated and is in Italian with English subtitles.

Look At Me (Comme Une Image-2004)

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The French comedy of manners, Look at Me (Comme Une Image), centers on Lolita (Marilou Berry) and her famous writer father Etienne (Jeanne-Pierre Bacri). Lolita is plain and overweight, and assumes most people want to get to know her because of her father. And usually, she’s right. However, she does have one thing going for her, a lovely singing voice, and is taking voice lessons.

Unfortunately, her father is too wrapped up in his own world to take notice of his daughter. One of his books has just been made into his movie. He has a stunning second wife. And people are constantly vying for his attention. He has no interest in his insecure daughter, and seems almost ashamed of her. Lolita herself is not without her faults. She is distrustful of anyone who makes overtures of friendship. And at times her self-pity is off-putting.

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Yet, Lolita does seem to have one bright light in her life-music. And her singing teacher Sylvia, played by Agnes Jaoui (who also directed and co-wrote the script) takes a special interest in Lolita. Initially, Sylvia’s interest is rather self-serving. Her husband, Pierre (Laurent Grevill) is a fledgling writer. Sylvia assumes if she befriends Lolita, she’ll introduce Pierre to her father, and Pierre’s writing career will finally get off the ground.

But it isn’t long before Sylvia realizes Lolita has a talent that must be nurtured, and that Lolita, herself, is worthy of attention and praise. Sylvia especially notices this when she and her husband are invited to Etienne’s country estate, and he berates everyone around him including Lolita.

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At the same time Lolita’s musical talent is being developed, she begins a friendship with a young man named Sébastien (Keine Bouhiza). Sébastien is also a writer, and Lolita once again thinks his friendly overtures are only to connect with her father. Lolita tries to get her father to help Sébastien, too dense and insecure to realize Sebastien is actually interested in her, and her only. Yes, he’s a writer, but he’d rather concentrate on developing a writing project with his friends rather than be mentored by an egotistical blowhard like Etienne. Will Lolita wise up and realize Sébastien really likes her for her, and she has value all on her own?
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Look at Me is at turns funny and mortifying. Ms. Berry is wonderful as Lolita, vulnerable, heartbreaking and all to easy to identify with all at once. At times you don’t know if you want to shake her or hug her. And you will find Mr. Bacri positively maddening as the selfish Etienne especially in one scene where he walks out of his daughter’s choral performance to take a phone call.

Look at Me takes an unflinching look at our narcissistic celebrity culture, especially once we learn those we worship often have feet of clay. It also examines how feeling like loser in a sea of success, fame, money and beauty that is so crippling we can barely break out the box we’ve put ourselves in.

Reel Women: Female Film Directors Past and Present

“If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies.” – Kathryn Bigelow

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In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow, the director of the critically-acclaimed film, The Hurt Locker, made history when she became the first women to win the Oscar for best director. She’s also a slew of other directing awards including the very prestigious Director’s Guild of America award for best director.

In honor of Ms. Bigelow I’ve decided to dust off a feature I initially wrote about women film directors from the silent era to the modern age way back in college, and posted on a defunct blog ending it with Ms. Bigelow’s triumph. I’ve updated this piece to reflect women film directors as of 2017. Enjoy!

As anyone to name a film director and most likely you’ll hear the names Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Cameron and Tarantino. It is rare that the first name you hear is a woman’s. Why is this? Well, men do dominate the film industry. And mostly men have won the best director Oscars…Kathryn Bigelow being the only anomaly. Or maybe we haven’t had a slew of women directors being nominated for directing Oscars (let alone winning) because only recently have women gone behind the scenes to direct movies and need time to catch up to the big boys. Well, not exactly.

Women have been a part of Hollywood since the silent movie era. Many of these women, like Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, are known for their work in front of the camera. However, women have been calling the shots behind the scenes since before the advent of the “talkies” in the late 1920s. They worked as producers, editors, screenwriters, and yes, directors. Many of these women held very creative and influential positions. One of the highest paid directors of the silent era was a woman. Furthermore, women directors were not afraid to make socially-conscious films.

Just as many actresses like Barbra Streisand and Penny Marshall have turned their talents to directing so did actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Film noir actress, Ida Lupino, directed both films and TV shows in the 1950s and 1960s. And she wasn’t afraid of focusing her camera lens on controversial issues.

So far very few women have been nominated for directing a feature film. These women include Lina Wertmuller, for the Italian language film Seven Beauties (1975), Jane Campion for The Piano (1993), Sophia Coppola for Lost in Translation (2003), winner Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2009).

The following a just a few notable female film directors and their work.

Silent Era to 1930-Alice Guy Blaché 

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Parisian-born Alice Guy Blaché (1875-1968) was the first female film director in the history of film making. She was also the first director, male or female, to bring narrative film to the silver screen. From 1896 to 1920 Ms. Guy Blaché directed over 400 films. She made her first full length film, The Life of Christ, in 1906. The Life of Christ was a big budget epic that included 300 extras. That same year, her film La Fee Printemps (The Spring Fairy) was one of the first films to be shot in color. In fact, many of her films used a great deal of the best special effects of that time period.

Ms. Guy Blaché was the first woman to own and run her own film studio, the Solax Studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. After Solax stopped producing films, Ms. Guy Blaché went to work for William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service.

By the early 1920s, Ms. Guy Blaché stopped making movies, but that did not stop her from giving lectures on film making. She was pretty much forgotten by film historians until she published her memoirs in 1976.

Some other films by Ms. Guy Blaché:

The Cabbage Fairy (1896)

The Dangers of Alcohol (1899)

A Fool and His Money (1912)

A House Divided (1913)

Dream Woman (1914)

The Divorcee (1919)

Tarnished Reputations (1920)

1930 to 1950-Dorothy Arzner

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Born in California, Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979) directed seventeen films between 1927 and 1943. She was the only female director to work with the major actresses of her day, including Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn. In fact, Ms. Arzner’s 1933 film, Christopher Strong, was the first film to bring the legendary Katharine Hepburn to public awareness.

Though Ms. Arzner initially wanted to work as a doctor, she soon turned her ambitions to movies. She began her career with Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, the parent company of Paramount. After starting out as a typist, Ms. Arzner soon climbed the ranks to screenwriter, and then editor. One of the most famous films she edited was Rudoph Valentino’s Blood and Sand. She was able to leverage this work into directing her first features Fashions for Women and Get Your Man in 1927.

Ms. Arzner’s success as a director lead her to direct one of the first “talkies,” The Wild Party featuring “It Girl” Clara Bow. And between 1927 and 1932, she made eleven features for Paramount until striking out on her own as an independent film director.

As a director, Ms. Arzner tackled many thorny topics including working women and female independence. Her work was often seen as melodramatic, but did reflect on women’s roles both in the home and outside in ways that films directed by men did not.

Ms. Arzner stopped directing movies in 1943. However, she did direct commercials for Pepsi and taught filmmaking at UCLA in the 1960s. And there are reports that director Todd Haynes wants to do biographic on Ms. Arzner’s life and how she affected motion pictures.

Some other films directed by Ms. Arzner:

Anybody’s Woman (1930)

Working Girls (1931)

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

Craig’s Wife (1936)

The Bride Wore Red (1937)

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

First Comes Courage (1943)

1950 to 1970-Ida Lupino

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Ida Lupino (1918-1995) was born in London and was encouraged by her parents to enter show business. She got her start as an actress. She mainly played tough yet sympathetic characters, and jokingly referred to herself as a “poor man’s Bette Davis.” Some of Ms. Lupino’s most notable roles were in the movies Drive by Night and High Sierra. In 1947, she left the studio system to become a freelance actress. Soon after Ms. Lupino began to focus her talents to behind the camera. Her first directing job came about when Elmer Clifton fell ill during the filming Not Wanted. Not only did Ms. Lupino end up directing the movie, she also shared writing credit.

Not content to direct what we’d call “chick flicks,” Ms. Lupino often directed tough action films. Her films also focused on controversial themes like rape, unwed motherhood and bigamy. She had her own production company and often directed films with no big name stars or huge monetary support from the studios. Her films were the precursor of independent cinema.

In the 1950s Ms. Lupino began to direct TV shows, including The Fugitive, Gilligan’s Island and Bewitched. She was the only woman to direct an episode of The Twilight Zone. In the 1970s, Ms. Lupino returned to acting in small roles. Of women working behind the scenes, she claimed, “I’d love to see more women working as directors and producers. Today it’s almost impossible to do it unless you are an actress or writer with power…I wouldn’t hesitate right this minute to hire a talented woman if the subject matter was right.”

Some other films directed by Ida Lupino:

Outrage (1950)

Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1950)

The Bigamist (1953)

The Hitchhiker (1953)

The Trouble With Angels (1996)

1970 to the Present-Kathryn Bigelow

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Born in 1951 in San Carlos, California, Kathryn Bigelow started her career out as an artist. She worked as a painter, and later got her Master’s degree in film at Columbia where she studied mainly film theory and criticism. She worked briefly as a professor until turning to film directing.

Bigelow’s first film was a 20-minute short called The Set Up. In this film two men fight each other while two others provided voice commentary about the images they are watching. Bigelow’s first full-length feature was a biker movie The Loveless (1982), which she co-directed with Monty Montgomery.

Bigelow has directed both film and TV. Some of her television credits include the notable drama Homicide: Life on the Streets (1997-1998) and the mini-series Wild Palms (1993). Probably one of the most popular of her movies is the action-packed Point Break (1991) starring Keanu Reeves and the late Patrick Swayze.

Bigelow has won widespread critical acclaim for the Oscar-nominated The Hurt Locker, a movie set in Iraq about bomb diffusers. Made on a minuscule budget with mostly unknown actors, Bigelow won a much deserved best directing Oscar on March 7th, 2010.

Bigelow has been considered an anomaly of female directors because her movies often focus on action and suspense, not romance and relationships like the films of the late Nora Ephron or Nancy Myers.

Other films by Kathryn Bigelow:

Near Dark (1987)

Blue Steel (1990)

Strange Days (1995)

The Weight of Water (2000)

K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Women continue to make in-roads as film directors. A few names are Allison Anders (Grace of My Heart), Lone Sherfig (An Education), Tamara Jenkins (The Savages) and Mira Nair (The Namesake), Amma Assante  (the soon-to-be-release Where Hands Touch), Oscar-winning documentary film maker Caroline Waterlow (OJ in America) and the late Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, Julia and Julie). And Ava DuVernay directed the Oscar-nominated Selma (2014) but wasn’t nominated for a best director Oscar, which didn’t sit well with a lot of people including me.

And just like Ida Lupino and Penny Marshall, actresses are also sitting in the director’s chair. A few of these include Jodie Foster, Angelina Jolie, Sarah Polley, Julie Delpy, Drew Barrymore, Lena Dunham, and the late Adrienne Shelly.

There are countless women now directing films that I couldn’t possibly name them all, but I look forward to learning their names and about their work.

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (2007)

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It is communist Romania, 1987. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days opens in university dorm room. At first, it just seems to be an ordinary day for any group of college students. They try on make-up, buy illicit cigarettes and talk about mundane topics. But you soon realize something is going on beyond idle chit-chat and daily college activities.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days takes very realistic and gritty look a at two roommates, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca). Gabita is pregnant and is relying on Otilia to help her procure an abortion. At the time, not only was abortion illegal in Romania, so was birth control. And though the rather dim Gabita is the one in need of an abortion, it is the more pragmatic Otilia who goes through the channels to make sure she gets one.

After leaving the dorm, Otilia starts a bleak journey going from hotel to hotel trying to find a room for Gabita to have an abortion. This can’t be done at the dorms, and obviously, they can’t go to a clinic. After she finally gets a room, she meets with a back-alley abortionist ironically known as Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). Otilia takes Mr. Bebe to the hotel room where Gabita waits. Chillingly, Mr. Bebe describes the procedure, and shames both Gabita and Otilia for being dirty sluts. While Gabita spends time in the bathroom, Mr. Bebe apparently rapes Otilia. We never see an actual rape scene, but Otilia coming into the bathroom, sans pants and scrubbing herself between her legs gives you a terrifying idea of what happened between her and Mr. Bebe.

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Mr. Bebe discovers Gabita is further along in her pregnancy and demands more money, which the young girls somehow come up with. They will trade both their bodies and their money to go through this procedure. As Mr. Bebe begins the abortion, he becomes very matter of fact on what will happen. During a long shot, we see him insert a probe into Gabita and inject a liquid. There is no idea how long this will take. It could take a few hours or a few days, and Gabita could get sick and die during the procedure. Mr. Bebe does not wait to find out the outcome.

Otilia also has to leave to join her boyfriend’s family for his mother’s birthday party. Otilia doesn’t say much during the dinner, but the look on her face says volumes. As her boyfriend’s family and friends chat about everything from food to schooling, Otilia’s emotions bubble very close to the service. She has no idea what is happening to her friend, and it is driving her mad.

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Otilia soon escapes the party and goes back to the hotel to find out what has happened to Gabita. These two women have gone through a very harrowing experience, but Otilia tells Gabita that they will never talk about ever again. It is as if it has never happened.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days is not a pro-life or pro-choice movie. It is a look at two young women living in a world of very few options. Though young, they are world weary and defeated. The scripted dialogue doesn’t hit one false note, and neither do the performances. Ms. Marinca as Otilia is exceptionally good in her role. Without melodramatics, she conveys her character’s struggles in silence using subtle facial expressions. Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, this movie’s aesthetic choices of no accompanying music and tight, almost claustrophobic camera shots convey the dreariness of moment in time.

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4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days is not an easy movie to watch, but never does it ring false. This movie proves not all unexpected pregnancies turn out to be puppies and rainbows. This movie is the anti-Knocked Up and will inspire a great deal of difficult conversations.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days is not rated and is in Romanian with English subtitles.