Chanel biopic stars Tautou, focuses on youth

Is the combination of Gallic sweetheart Audrey Tautou and iconic fashion designer Coco Chanel enough to strike biopic gold a second time in France and abroad?

Tautou starrer “Coco Before Chanel,” which opened April 22 in France, is just one of the projects following in the wake of the heat generated by Edith Piaf biopic “La Vie en rose.”

A second Chanel-themed project, “Coco and Igor Stravinsky,” will close this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Another beloved singer will get his turn with “Serge Gainsbourg, vie heroique” due in 2010.

In its first week at the French B.O., “Coco Before Chanel” grossed $3.6 million and sold 443,370 tickets, coming in second to mass market spy comedy “OSS 17 — Lost in Rio.”

It’s too soon to tell whether pic has any chance of approaching the worldwide success of “La Vie en rose,” which grossed $86 million, including $10 million in the U.S., an excellent result for a foreign-language film.

While the pic is co-financed and distribbed by Warner Bros. in France, it will be released by Sony Pictures Classics in the U.S., most likely closer to awards season.

“Coco’s” April release in France meant the timing was wrong for a Cannes berth, but Warners decided it was better to escape the summer rush.

“We figured at this time of the year the market is strong and less crowded than usual,” says Haut et Court co-producer Caroline Benjo.

Also, with more Chanel biopics on the way, “Coco Before Chanel” has the advantage of being the first — auds might eventually tire of hearing about the iconic fashion designer who rose to fame starting in the 1910s.

Warner Bros. came on board early on as a co-financer after reading a 15-page treatment at Berlin last year and inked a world deal with Films Distribution.

The pic has already sparked two controversies. Posters showing Coco on a bed holding a lit cigarette were deemed unhealthy and inappropriate by the French transport authorities and thus removed from buses and trains — and replaced by a more discreet pic of Coco and her lover.

The smoking controversy is ironic considering that Chanel, who died at 87, was known for being a two-pack-a-day chain smoker.

“Cigarettes are banned on our entire transport system,” says a spokesman for Metrobus, the company that runs ads in buses and trains. “And there is no reason why we should be giving them free advertising through this film poster.”

Eyebrows were also raised about the omission of Chanel’s romance with a Nazi officer during World War II.

Benjo says the film didn’t include this chapter as the pic only relates to her youth.

“In contrast with traditional biopics which span over an entire life, we chose to focus on her youth, her formative years, because these are the most crucial,” Benjo says.

Controversies aside, the pic is expected to travel well due to Tautou’s international appeal and helmer Anne Fontaine’s popularity. Fontaine’s previous film, sexy dramedy “The Girl From Monaco” was picked up by Magnolia Pictures for limited U.S. distribution and screened at Toronto, Hong Kong and Locarno fests.

This is Fontaine’s first period pic. The director says she had wanted to make a film about Coco Chanel for 20 years but was looking for a unique point of view.

The pic doesn’t have a classic biopic structure, instead concentrating more on the designer’s attempt to find her way.

“Coco kept going against her destiny for a long time. This is what makes the first years of her life quite unique and dramatically very rich,” Benjo says.

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