Time for Audrey Tautou to generate some heat?
Coco Before Chanel
2009, 105 mins.
* * * (of five)
In French, with subtitles

Audrey Tautou won our hearts in Amelie in 2001 and we’ve been begging for her to do it again. We’re still waiting. Coco Before Chanel¸ a liberty-taking biopic of the famed glamour designer is not a bad film, but neither is it a dazzling one.

As the title suggests, it tracks Chanel to the cusp of fame and ends with a runway coda in which the elegant Chanel is being lionized. The film takes up Chanel (1895-1971) at age twelve, when she and her elder sister were tucked into a Catholic Church orphanage because their recently widowed father had to travel to find work. On the screen, Chanel leaves the nuns at age eighteen to pursue a cabaret career. There she meets and becomes the mistress of the rich, fun-seeking, but vacuous Étienne Balsan and moves to his country estate. This is our first tipoff that director Anne Fontaine is searching for a spark; in real life Chanel apprenticed with a tailor when she turned eighteen and met Balsan in the shop.

Benoît Poelvoorde plays Balsan and is easily the best thing in the film. Balsan isn’t clever and he knows it. He lives the life of the idle gentry and knows his way around horses and barns much better than around independent women or society. This is the sort of role that invites overacting in British films, but Poelvoorde strikes precisely the right balance between being clueless, well-intentioned, and vulnerable. When Coco ultimately and inevitably leaves him for the dashing and more intellectual Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola), we appropriately cannot tell if Balsan will muddle on or fall to pieces.

Once again Fontaine reaches into a grab bag of histrionics to advance the action artificially. Capel did indeed underwrite Chanel’s business ventures, become her lover, and die in a car crash but what takes place in an instant in the film took ten years in life. Why take such liberties with Edmonde Charles-Roux’s biography? This is Fontaine’s eleventh film as a director, none of which have set the world afire. Her track record and predictable story arc and camera work in Coco suggest she simply isn’t a very imaginative director.

Alas, the other thing weighing down the film is Tautou. After Amelie, Tautou was hailed as the French Audrey Hepburn, an ingénue destined to make us love her time and time again. This has not happened. Her work since Amelie has been uneven and includes one dreadful performance (Sophie Neveu in The DaVinci Code). In most of her films, including Coco, Tautou has been perfectly competent, but little more. The experience of watching her is akin to hoping that a smoldering fire will blaze, but it never does. The tacked-on cabaret sequences are there to capture an Amelie-like insouciance, but they simply don’t.

Let me reiterate—Coco Before Chanel is not a bad film, and one could certainly drop ten bucks on far worse. One does come away with a real understanding of what made Chanel revolutionary. She was a defiant champion of simple elegance in the waning days of frippery and excess, and an independent woman in the days in which Victorian wallflowers gave way to the New Woman. Coco is often fun to watch and Fontaine does a reasonably decent job of showing how Chanel created style from the rawest of materials. The film also invites us to compare the graceful standards Chanel established with the egocentric and trashy lines that purport to be haute couture these days. Chanel once remarked that “In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” This, ultimately, is the biggest problem with Coco Before Chanel-- it’s relentlessly ordinary.--LV



Our London correspondent wants to know why people have forgotten that comedy is intended to upset the status quo.

Milan Kundera wrote a famed novel titled Laughter and Forgetting. Apparently some in Britain can’t do either. Recently, two jokes caused quite a stir. Here they are:

It’s a tragedy about soldiers coming home from Afghanistan minus limbs. Mind you the army can field a crack paraplegic team in the next Olympics.

It’s been disclosed recently that Anne Frank’s father was going to buy her a drum kit for her birthday.

The first one was from Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle on a topical BBC TV news quiz called “Mock the Week.” No description of that show is necessary, but it makes Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” look like evensong so we are already in edgy territory. That joke, along with a couple of others, got Boyle removed from the program. The second was from UK comedian Jimmy Carr at a gig somewhere in the north of England. Apparently in the full house there were a few complaints.

My question is: Who decides what's an acceptable joke? In the first case I assume it was the BBC. In the second no one can decide apart from line drawn by the respective comedian as to what’s acceptable or not. In each case a howling of disapproval came from the mouths of those who either never saw the shows or simply disagreed with the sentiments. I wonder if any of them had ever heard Richard Pryor – a comedian both of the above men admire, and rightly so. Pryor had a real and recognizable agenda, but that should not prevent others from getting close to the comfort line. Whenever you venture close to the line, you’ll inevitably find yourself crossing it from time to time. Were these two jokes over the line? Do they allow us simply to forget the attendant horrors in each experience? So what if we do? A joke doesn’t make someone a default member Al-Qaida, the Taliban, or the Nazis.

Isn’t comedy by nature offensive? There’s always a butt of the joke, even if it’s oneself. So what got Boyle and Carr in trouble? Is it because they upset the status quo? Is it because their humor challenged the values that power elites want us to hear dear? And in the grand scheme of things, isn’t the entire controversy ultimately worth less than a pocketful of change? (Who would remember either joke if they hadn't been deemed 'offensive' by those seeking to promote some other agenda?) What does everyone else think?

As for my opinion of the jokes, the first one is one is average and the second excellent. So I take Kundera’s book title and cut it in half in the spirit of forgetting. Or do I? How sick am I?

—Lloyd Sellus



Army of Crime
Directed by Robert Guediguian

139 mins
* * * *

In the run up to the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, there’s been a wave of revisionist accounts of life under German occupation. Army of Crime is one of the better examples. Directed and co-scripted by Robert Guediguian, best known for his left-wing films of working-class life in the Marseilles area, this film concerns the complexities and dangers of resistance under the shroud of Nazism where no one can be trusted: neighbours, friends, family, authorities and police are all potential Nazi snitches. It opens with a convoy of buses going through the Paris streets carrying prisoners on their way to be executed. (Their stories are told in flashback.) We encounter the whispers of racism at the film’s beginning and slowly move towards the screams of revolutionaries in the development and rise of the resistance.

A small band of immigrants are led by a charismatic, but initially reluctant revolutionary: Armenian Missak Manouchian (brilliantly played by Simon Abkarian), who is happily married to a Frenchwoman (Virginie Ledoyen). They attack Nazis in cars, buses and buildings but this is no gung-ho war picture. This is a considered and intelligent investigation into a ragged bunch of resistance fighters who were aware they were being watched, possibly being betrayed, but who nonetheless display great courage in the face of the propaganda messages broadcast each day condemning Jews and communists. The torture scenes, carried out by willing collaborators, are horrific and are watched over by one whom we assume to be a sympathetic policeman from the 11th arrondissment, a poor area where many of the foreign immigrants live. But he is not all he seems as he befriends a woman whose Jewish husband is in prison. The web is complex and divisive.

Taking reference points from similar films by Rene Clement, Max Ophuls and in particular the downbeat Army of Shadows by Jean-Pierre Melville, this is a much needed antidote to the inanities of the recent Quentin Tarantino film about Nazi hunters. Dialogue heavy with discussions of freedom, human rights and the difficulties of pacifism under duress, this character-driven narrative never falters. The film title references the name given to the resistance by the Nazis. A film not to miss.

Lloyd Sellus.


The NFL of the future? Surely not, since--according to NFL fans--only baseball player use drugs.

Off the top of my head the only group I can think of that rivals sports fans for hypocrisy is horny fundamentalist preachers. The Internet is ablaze with self-proclaimed moralists renting their garments because of steroid use in the major league baseball. Most of that is in the past—and much of it came before some of the substances were banned—but that hasn’t prevented erstwhile protectors of the integrity of sports from shouting “A-Roid” at every possible moment, or suggesting that the records of “cheaters” be wiped from the record books.

Don’t get me started on the number of ways in which America’s war on drugs is a joke, but for sheer moxie I’m appalled at the number of Internet posters who righteously assert that they’re glad the baseball season is over because football is the true national pastime. I admit some bias on this—I can’t stand football and think it rivals only televised auto racing and golf on the just-shoot-me boredom scale. That said, if football is the national pastime now it’s a walking advertisement for a “Just Say Yes to Drugs” campaign. There’s way more use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in pro football than in major league baseball. Let’s get real. Do we really think it’s normal for a guy who weighs 260 pounds to sprint 40 yards in four and a half seconds? It’s not conditioning; it’s PEDs, as former NFL player Dana Stubblefield told everyone in 2008.

That was all of a year ago. According to U.S. News and World Reports, however, the Stubblefield allegations haven’t exactly cleaned up the sport. Forget the drug testing that allegedly rooted out the problem; until very recently NFL players used a (now-banned diet) substance called bumetanide to mask steroid use. They’re on to new masks now as new reports assert that 16.3% of all offensive linemen and 14.3% of defensive linemen use some form of steroid. Overall PED use is estimated at 10% of all NFL players.

So where’s the outrage? Baseball was collectively crucified when the Mitchell report contained 124 names of past users, but a 10% PED use in the NFL means there are 170 present users suiting up each week. Also buried in the back pages is the fact that three college players projected to be first-round draft picks in the upcoming draft tested positive for drugs. And who can even name the two New Orleans players who were suspended for PEDs? (Charles Grant and Will Smith, for the record). And how about the two Vikings players—Pat Williams and Kevin Williams—whose drug suspensions were overturned when they sued to say that the very act of testing was illegal under Minnesota law? That hit the papers the day the World Series ended, a coincidence I’ll bet.

Want more hypocrisy? How about Raiders coach Tom Cable, a guy who broke the jaw of one of his assistants? Are we to admire his mano-a- mano machismo? Well, maybe you didn’t read the small print about how he also physically abused his first wife, and a subsequent girlfriend. That also hit the papers the morning after the Yankees and “A-Roid” won the Series.

Football as the antidote to “cheaters” and boorish louts? Give me a break. It’s way worse than baseball—not that you’d hear that from the Internet crowd that wants to remove a splinter from the MLB but can’t see the beams giving the NFL a black eye.


Honk If You Care!

Note to Obama: Look up the word 'hubris.'
I want a bumper sticker that says “Honk if you give a crap what happens to Afghanistan.” My guess is that I could drive across America in relative silence. Afghanistan is a landlocked nation with few natural resources (other than opium), no strategic value, as many warring tribes as Somalia, and a putative president (Karzai) who’s as corrupt as a Wall Street boardroom.

For all of this, President Obama has announced he intends to “finish the job” in Afghanistan and keep American troops there. What job, exactly, are we finishing? Stopping terrorists? Ummm, more of them are in Pakistan than Afghanistan and unless we decide to level the mountain borders this is isn’t going to happen. Are we “bringing democracy” to Afghanistan? Good luck with that! Stability? See warring tribes. We are accomplishing exactly two things in Afghanistan: the depletion of American military personnel and fostering a hatred of American occupiers that breeds more terrorists.

President Obama needs to familiarize himself with the term hubris, cut his losses, and get us out of this sinkhole. Now! Is it possible to conquer Afghanistan? Sure—numerous groups have done so: the Medes, Alexander the Great, the Turks, the Mongols…. Is possible to rule it? Nope. Check the history books. Is it possible to get your butt handed to you on a platter? That’s the most likely scenario. What, other than arrogance, makes the United States think it can fill a void that the Romans, the British, and the Soviets could not?

If we leave would Afghanistan become a hotbed for terrorists? Probably. And that would be different how? There are far more effective ways to deal with terror than sending U.S. troops into a cobra pit. If we wanted to be mercenary about it, we’d just arm some of the tribes who hate the Taliban. In truth, however, they’d end up hating us even if they destroyed the Taliban. Or has everyone forgotten that we helped arm the Taliban back in the days in which they were battling the Soviets? Let’s face facts: Afghanistan is a failed state whose future is bleak no matter what we do. It’s time to leave and allow Malthusianism to take its inevitable toll.

Count me among those losing faith in President Obama. He continues to squander resources in two conflicts, Afghanistan and Iraq, from which he pledged to extract us, and his moral presumptiveness is approaching Bush-levels of arrogance.



Moralizers aren't happy and that's the Gospel truth!
So who’s happy in America? Must be those sun-worshiping Floridians? Or maybe folks in the Bible Belt who go to bed snug (smug?) in their belief that God loves them. Or maybe it’s those Midwesterners holding fast to family values. Nope! Want to be happy? Try minding your own business. A new study shows that, with the exception of Utah, folks in states with an ethos of live-and-let-live are happier than the self-righteous. Education and wealth matter more than good weather or piety, and happy states don’t get uptight about gay people either. The happiest ultra-Christian state? Texas at number 21. The bottom ten are all either post-industrial (Michigan and Ohio) or notches on the Bible Belt. For what it's worth, eight of the top ten are reliably Democratic in their voting habits, while nine of the bottom ten generally vote for Republicans. All that sun in Florida only gets residents number 30. See: