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.

The Spotlight

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***There is a good chance there will be a writers’ strike via the WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) according to Variety Magazine.*** (H/T Tari Jordan)

Move ticket prices are getting higher, and Hollywood Reporter tells us why.

Summer of 2017 movie preview courtesy of Entertainment Weekly.

Women directed films that are must-sees in 2017!

Geena Davis celebrates the 25th anniversary of A League of Their Own’s release.

Salma Hayek’s Beatriz at Dinner sounds like my kind of film, one that connects with my “Power to the People” mindset.

Talent agent Sandy Gallin dead at 76.

New documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent celebrates the eminent chef and his connection to California cuisine and the renowned restaurant Chez Panisse.

Will Netflix end its mail order DVD service in the age of streaming?

Director John Waters new summer camp for adults, Camp John Waters.

 

 

 

 

Iron Jawed Angels (2004)

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“Well-behaved women seldom make history” – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

On August 26, 1920 the women of the United States got the right to vote. This did not come to be without the tireless efforts of many women, some of them known, some of them nameless. I am very grateful for the women who literally put their lives on the line to give me the right to vote, so I highly recommend the movie Iron Jawed Angels.

Iron Jawed Angels tells the story of two very brave women, suffragettes Alice Paul (Hilary Swank) and Lucy Burns (Frances O’Connor). In the beginning of the film, the two have returned to the United States after spending time in England where they’ve been very involved with women’s suffrage. They soon join forces with Carrie Chapman Catt (Angelica Huston) and other seasoned activists in the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to help American women get the right to vote.

However, NAWSA finds Paul and Burns much too frivolous and rebellious. Paul and Burns are seen as way too radical for Catt and her cohorts when it comes to gaining women’s suffrage. Both young suffragists want a constitutional amendment for American women to have the right to vote. The older suffragists want to use a more conservative state-by-state approach.

Before long Paul and Burns break away from NAWSA and start their own organization, which they call the National Women’s Party (NWP). One of NWP’s goals is to oppose any candidate who is against a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote.

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After disrupting President Woodrow Wilson’s speech to Congress after he refused to meet with the suffragettes to discuss the issue, Paul and Burns go on a country-wide speaking tour to drum up support for their cause. They join forces with influential people like labor lawyer Inez Mulholland (Julia Ormond) and political cartoonist Ben Weissman. There is even a strong attraction between Paul and Weissman, but she holds off on romance because she wants to devote her time to the cause.

While in San Francisco, Mulholland passes away. Paul is devastated. She feels guilty because she convinced Mulholland to go on tour with them even though she was seriously ill. Very depressed, Paul goes back to her family’s home. But soon Burns convinces her that she is desperately needed. Both ladies go back to Washington DC to further the cause.

The country is now involved in World War I. The idea of women getting the right to vote is seen as silly during war time, and public opinion is not favorable towards the suffragettes. While picketing on the sidewalk in DC, the suffragettes are arrested for the trumped-up charge of “obstructing traffic.” The suffragettes refuse to pay the fine and are sentenced to sixty days in a women’s prison.

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While imprisoned, Paul goes on a hunger strike after being put in solitary confinement and denied any legal representation. The other suffragettes join Paul in the hunger strike, and later they are violently force-fed by the warden.

Paul starts writing about their experiences after a guard smuggles her a pen and some paper. One of the suffragette’s husbands, a prominent senator, is so horrified by the conditions the suffragettes are living in that he gets the word out. Formerly despised, the suffragettes are now supported by the American public who calls them “iron jawed angels.”

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Despite her misgivings about Burns and Paul, Catt is impressed by all the work they have done in name of women’s right to vote. She convinces President Wilson to support women’s suffrage and soon the suffragettes are released from prison. After getting the appropriate amount of states to support the Susan B. Anthony amendment, American women were given the right to vote on August 26, 1920.

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Iron Jawed Angels is wonderfully acted and truly riveting. The story of these brave women is not very well-known but so important. And despite covering a very serious topic, Iron Jawed Angels has its lighter moments. In one scene, a young suffragette sees the cutest hat a store window and just has to have it proving one can be a feminist and a fashionista at the same time.

Iron Jawed Angels should be shown in American history classes. Every young woman and young man in America needs to learn this story. After watching this movie, you will never take the right to vote for granted again.

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