The challenge of the biopic

I do love a biopic – essentially, a movie dramatisation of the life of a real person – but I also know that I must always keep in mind that it is a dramatisation. That is, it is not a biography but more like a biographical novel. The challenge with this is that when I know the subject well – such as Jane Austen (have I told you I’m a fan?!) – I can tell where poetic licence has been taken in order to tell a good story. But, when I don’t know the subject well, I can walk away believing that what I have just seen are the facts.

A year or so ago, I saw the film Becoming Jane. It created quite a stir among Janeites because it took great liberties with her life: it took what our sources can only confirm as an attraction (possibly an intense one, but one that was quickly nipped in the bud) and created a highly romantic story that included a near-elopement. To the purists this took too great a liberty with her life. To the feminists it was “corrupt” in its implication that it was only as a result of this “romance” that Austen was able to write the love stories that she did. To the general public though it was a lovely period piece about someone who has become one of the century’s icons. Me? I thought it was a very entertaining movie – but it was not my Jane!

Coco Chanel, 1920s (Presumed public domain)

Coco Chanel, 1920s (Presumed public domain)

Coco Avant Chanel

Anyhow, this brings me to the film I saw today, Coco Avant Chanel. I know next to nothing about Coco Chanel’s life and so I could easily walk away from this film believing that I know exactly how she got to be the fashion doyenne that she was, and exactly what role was played by two men – the Frenchman Balsan and the Englishman Arthur “Boy” Capel – in the development of her early career. That would, though, be a bit disingenuous of me. And the film itself should clue me into that a bit as it clearly skirted across some parts of her story. For example, at one point it showed Balsan treating her almost as a whore (or kept woman – “my geisha”) and then suddenly accepting her into his rather wild “fold”. It showed “Boy” as her first great love but rather glossed over the financial arrangement between them, something which the film implies compromised Coco’s sense of independence. It teased us with a close relationship with a sister but didn’t resolve that. However, I did enjoy the movie. I liked the transition from 10 year old Coco (then called Gabrielle) to the young woman peering through the curtains before going on to perform in a cabaret-style bar. It neatly gave us the sense that she was an outsider, watching and waiting to join in. That is certainly one of the themes of her story as told in this film. Oh, and I loved the way it showed her subversive attitude to fashion – her blending of comfort (no corsets, looser fit, androgynous look) with style and elegance. A woman after my own heart, though I must admit that comfort rather than style is what I mostly achieve!

Co-producer of Becoming JaneGraham Broadbent, says of his film that ‘There are documented facts and we’ve joined the dots in our own Austenesque landscape.’ Should we care – does it matter – that we can’t all see the joins between the dots when we see a biopic?

One thought on “The challenge of the biopic

  1. Pingback: Young Victoria « Whispering Gums

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