Film Reviews


Films about great writers rarely work because it’s hard to express their literary output cinematically; a film about a fashion designer offers a much more visual proposition. Anne Fontaine’s sumptuously dressed biopic of the early years of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel may be no great shakes as a drama, sticking close to the La Vie En Rose model of rags to riches, but at least the featured rags have rarely been so freshly pressed and laundered. From his introduction to our heroine, having her dreams shattered in an orphanage, it’s clear that Fontaine’s take on Chanel is firmly nailed to the idea of fashion as an expression of romantic longing. Gabrielle (Audrey Tautou) soon sees her initial hopes as a song and dance girl flounder, leading her into the company of sugar-daddy Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde). As our heroine is slighted by Balsan’s attraction to glamorous actress Adrienne (Emmanuelle Devos), a quick snip of her scissors on his tie demonstrates how heartbreak can be expressed through clothing. But as Chanel transfers her attentions to boy-racer Arthur

Capel (Alessandro Nivola), another potential heartbreak looms on the horizon.

While lacking the aesthetic rigour of Edmonde Charles-Roux’s book, Coco Before Chanel faithfully charts the rising hemlines and torn bustiers of a passionate woman repressed by society, with emotion- driven montages of dressmaking, as Coco uses sewing machine and scissors to direct her restless energies into clothing.

Costing a reputed £26 million, Fontaine’s film may be dramatically clichéd, but it’s also gorgeous to look at, with beautiful recreations of Chanel’s early designs. And Tautou, whose performance in The Da Vinci Code was more Coco the Clown than Chanel, proves herself a illuminating ingénue, steeling herself through life’s misfortunes to become the toast of Paris with a permanently lit cigarette and inch-tape always at the ready. There’s nothing experimental or innovative about

Fontaine’s approach, which is as conventional as any TV mini-series, but Coco Before Chanel provides undeniably classy entertainment as the story of a girl who truly wore her heart on her sleeve. (Eddie Harrison) On general release from Fri 31 Jul.

THRILLER THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (15) 121 min ●●●●●

How can you go wrong with a remake of 1974’s Joseph Sargent thriller, in which cop Walter Matthau and master- criminal Robert Shaw played out a tense cat-and-mouse game for the lives of subway hostages? For the first hour at least, Tony Scott’s remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 comes up with a few smart riffs on the basic situation, with Denzel Washington downplaying as put-upon controller Walter Garber and John Travolta at his scuzziest as the vindictive Ryder, who takes a train full of innocent New Yorkers as security for his ransom demands.

Brian Helgeland (LA Confidential, Payback) has contributed a script that adds effective shades of grey to the characterisations, with Garber’s morals in question after taking a bribe on a lucrative subway contract, and Travolta’s grudge against the city sympathetically voiced. But on the hour mark, the ideas run dry, and Scott’s film peters out to a limp conclusion with none of the gritty punch of the original.

For his fourth collaboration with

Washington, following on from Crimson Tide, Man on Fire and Déjà Vu, Scott elicits decent lead performances and throws in a couple of spectacular but irrelevant car- smashes as the cops race to get the ransom cash into position. But all the modish updates involving webcams and hi-tech surveillance go for nothing when Ryder’s plan is revealed to be unspeakably lame, and the high-death toll sits uneasily with the all-smiles ending. Not a patch on the original, John Godey’s tightly-wound source novel deserved a better make-over than this. (Eddie Harrison) On general release from Fri 31 Jul.

COMEDY RUMBA (PG) 76 mins ●●●●●

Written and directed by the triumvirate of Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy, Rumba is a deadpan Belgian tragi-comedy, in which the clowning of the characters goes hand-in-hand with a series of disastrous setbacks in their lives. Happily married Fiona (Gordon) and Dom (Abel) are Latin dance-loving teachers in Normandy, who on returning victorious from a dancing competition suffer a car- crash. She has to have a leg amputated, and he develops permanent amnesia. Their problems have only just begun, however: they can no longer teach, their house burns down, and Dom disappears one day when popping to the bakery. Dialogue and music are kept to the barest of minimums in the brightly coloured

Rumba, and the filmmakers favour static shots, which allow viewers to concentrate on the movements of the performers within the frame. The film’s absurdist humour often emerges directly from the misfortunes stoically endured by Fiona and Dom: attempting to bend down on crutches at school, she finds herself falling out of an open window, while later it’s her wooden limb that helps fuel the domestic conflagration. At times individual sequences feel over-stretched but the physically expressive performances of Abel and Gordon are appealing throughout. (Tom Dawson) Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Tue 4-Thu 6 Aug.

50 THE LIST 23 Jul–6 Aug 2009