Two very different films this week, French biopic, Coco Avant Chanel, and a remake thriller, The Taking of Pelham 123, shared an awareness of filmic possibilities.
Anne Fontaine's direction of Coco was plodding, a common fault with costume dramas, though costumes, scenery and sets rang the changes: French orphanage, Parisian dress shop, cabaret bar, theatre, seaside and society gatherings. The cunning couturier, Audrey Tatou at full pout, stalked a reluctant Baron, (Benoit Poelvoorde, a Bill Paterson look-alike with a moustache and wavy hair), to escape drudgery as a seamstress. His sexual demands met with the same polite demurring as when she allowed her playboy lover to set her up in business. It was as well-laundered as a nun's wimple, sex a tiresome necessity for a woman set on freeing women from corsets. Her playboy lover's marriage to an English heiress was seen in much the same light.
The liveliest scenes had Emanuelle Devros as Coco's wordly lesbian admirer and purveyor of hat-hungry ladies. They seem to have had the some role as shoes today. Emanuelle's scenes as star of luridly-lit farces made Coco's earlier cabaret act look like a Sunday school recital.
In a different part of the universe, John Travolta had stolen a New York subway train and was holding the passengers hostage until the Mayor, played by a rascally James Gandolfini organised the delivery of £10 million dollars. Denzel Washington was an unperturnable chief negotiator, after some bungling attempts by police 'expert' John Tuturro. It's a long time since I saw the original, but this version seemed to foreground action and sets rather than character-interaction, although there was a moderate amount of buddy-bonding between the principals.
What linked the films was the emphasis on the camera-work. In Coco the lens lingered on carefully framed scenery or details of fabric and processes. For the most part the camera functioned as the heroine's 'eyes', taking in the cool greys of the nuns' habits, the stripy jumpers of fishermen at Deauville or the elaborate lacework of high-class ballgowns.
If Coco was self-consciously art-house, Tony Scott's flashy swerves and sharp edits demanded whip-lash alertness, as trains whooshed through tunnels and cop cars careered across intersections. Even the control room was full of blinking lights and huge neon-lit screens, as well as characters dashing to and fro as they were variously summoned or recalled to deal with minor crises during the main emergency. Both films, although flawed, explored in different ways the possibilities of film media, instead of merely illustrating the narratives on which they were based.
The Taking of Pelham 123 http://www.institut-francais.org.uk/cine-lumiere/films/coco-avant-chanel.html