Movie Reviews: ‘Bright Star’, ‘Coco Before Chanel’

Bright Star shines light on poet John Keats’ fraught affair with a girl above his station—at best, the name is a minor marketing asset for a movie that could just as easily be titled Typical Weepy Victorian Romance. Only it’s not meant to be typical. Directed by Jane Campion (The Piano, Holy Smoke), of whom more is expected, the only substantive difference between Bright Star and its paint-by-numbers BBC kin is, in a word, photography. Campion sets a risky precedent with the second shot of the film: a group of bonneted seamstresses working before an adjacent window.

This self-conscious Vermeer referencing happens often—there’s so much activity conducted before open windows you’ll wonder if the director doesn’t have a defenestration fetish. Within these rich tableaux, Keats (Ben Whishaw) is depicted as the apotheosis of all dreamy, consumptive poets. He’s a mop-topped genius prone to courting inspiration in too-green-to-be-true fields. Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is his inamorata, the fashion-obsessed girl-next-door. Because of Keats’ poverty and seeming lack of promise, their love is forbidden, though Fanny is bold enough to pursue it on the sly. Much weeping over keepsakes and letters ensues.

Campion may embellish Keats’ ability, but she genuinely admires Brawne’s resolve, highlighting her assertive red dress poking through a canopy of gray tree limbs. Visual metaphors like this abound: a needle pulling thread, a bee to a flower, a hillside strung with linens flailing in the wind. They’re delectable, except when over-burdened. Keying in on a dustpan filled with dead butterflies at the moment when love turns sour is pretty rigorous straining. As for the actors trapped in this ornate shell of a movie, Whishaw is capable enough, but Cornish is the main attraction. She understands Fanny as a spiritual cousin of Jane Austen’s heroines, and plays out the familiar tension between decorum and desire with consummate skill. Nevertheless, we’ve seen all of this before, no question, just rarely inside such a carefully crafted package.

Also awash in heartbreak and romantic vistas is Anne Fontaine’s Coco Before Chanel. Much like the recent La Vie en Rose, the film focuses on one of France’s most enduring icons, and similarly avoids taking any risks. The only surprise is that it features little of the couture for which Chanel became famous—it’s far more “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman” than celebration of her career in fashion. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (Audrey Tautou) was an orphan and struggling seamstress when, at 18, an affair with playboy millionaire Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) thrust her into the upper echelons of aristocratic society. Enchanted by the atmosphere but indifferent to her lover, the burgeoning designer took up two hobbies: hatmaking, and an additional affair with the English businessman Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola). She needed Balsan, but loved Capel, and the messy crucible of their love triangle was enough to put her off romance for the rest of her life.

Tautou has matured since the kewpie-doll days of Amélie, and invests the upstart Chanel with a suitably flinty exterior that makes her ascendance in the male-dominated world of high fashion seem credible. The film’s exterior, however, is bland. It’s odd that writer-director Fontaine should package the story of an iconoclastic figure so drably. It would have been more interesting, and no less reverential, to have aimed for a formal style as radical as Chanel’s. Catnip for fashionistas though it may be, Coco Before Chanel is an old-fashioned movie about a woman who was anything but.

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