Coco Before Chanel, Anne Fontaine, 110 mins, (12A)

Crossing Over, Wayne Kramer, 113 mins, (18)

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

This flimsy story of Coco Chanel's early years just leaves you wondering what happened next

The prevailing blockbuster template of the past decade has been the prequel – the film-length flashback which explains how Bruce Wayne took to crime-fighting in fancy dress (Batman Begins), how James Bond got his double-0 (Casino Royale), and how Kirk got himself promoted over the better qualified Spock (Star Trek).

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel might have been a fashion designer rather than a superhero (although some devotees would put her in both camps), but otherwise this burgeoning sub-genre fits Coco Before Chanel like an over-priced glove. An account of her pre-fame years, it has the customary Freudian glance back at her childhood, the customary shots of her developing her best-known skills and predilections, and the customary intimations of what's in store for her later on. It also leaves the viewer with the customary suspicion that the juicy stuff is all going to happen after the end credits have rolled.

After a prologue that sees the young Gabrielle being dumped at an orphanage's front door by her father, we meet her again as an adult (Audrey Tautou), seamstressing by day, and duetting with her sister in a provincial cabaret by night. The sisters' signature ditty is about a dog called Coco, which is apparently reason enough for a roué in the audience to declare that that should be Gabrielle's nickname – and reason enough for Gabrielle to go along with the notion, rather than emptying her drink all over his trousers.

It's lucky she's so obliging, because the roué turns out to be an aristocratic landowner, Etienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde). Still hoping to make it as a singer or an actress, Coco invites herself to Balsan's country estate, where he provides her with bed and board, on the understanding that it's his bed she sleeps in. Conveniently, every single one of the high-society women she meets at Balsan's decadent parties is trussed up in a dress that's a mass of bows, brooches, flowers and feathers, so Coco is soon telling everyone who'll listen that they should be wearing simpler, more androgynous clothes.

It's all as reductive as that. We're shown repeatedly that corsets are sweaty and uncomfortable, so Coco doesn't approve of them. Coco can't afford fancy dresses, so she opts for plain ones. Coco wore black when she was in her orphanage, so that's what she thinks everyone should wear. Maybe the process of revolutionising 20th-century fashion really was as prosaic as that, but you start to wonder what all the fuss is about.

A love triangle forms when Balsan introduces Coco to his friend, Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola). When he's not sitting moodily alone in the drawing room playing the piano, this tall, dark and handsome English industrialist encourages Coco to set up shop as a milliner in Paris. The pair of them fall for each other, but there are enough obstacles in the path of their relationship to turn Coco Before Chanel into a Mills & Boon-worthy tragic romance. It rolls along smoothly and tastefully, with as many carriages and country houses as any Jane Austen adaptation (although, ironically, the elaborate frocks we're invited to admire in any other period drama are the ones that we're meant to sneer at here). But considering its subject matter, there's precious little flair, and it relies on Tautou for much of its depth and intensity. Banishing all memories of Amélie, she's a coiled spring of resentment who becomes steadily more regal and authoritative as she finds her calling.

Tautou's performance aside, Coco Before Chanel isn't very engrossing if you're not already an acolyte, and it isn't very revelatory if you are. Certainly, none of the story we get compares with what we don't get: her subsequent success, her affair with Stravinsky, and her wartime liaison with a Nazi spy. In its focus and its style, Coco Before Chanel is like the first part of a TV mini-series, so we can only hope that Coco During Chanel and Coco After Chanel are still to come.

Another film that's not quite as profound as it wants to be is Crossing Over. It appears to be the work of a writer-director who watched Crash and reasoned that the way to win an Oscar was by making a sprawling issue-drama set in Los Angeles. The issue he's gone for is illegal immigration. Harrison Ford heads the cast as a customs enforcement cop who's going soft in his old age. Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, Jim Sturgess and a largely naked Alice Eve are among the other people who are either trying to kick someone out of the country, or avoid being kicked out themselves.

Judging by the number of recent American films which have been concerned by illegal immigration, it's taking over from Iraq as the topic of choice for politically inclined Hollywood directors. But, unlike last month's Frozen River, Crossing Over doesn't bother to embed the topic in a compelling story. Instead, the characters are always having to pour out unwieldy monologues about the evils of restricted immigration. The most egregious example is a scene in which a policeman pontificates about "the sublime promise" of US citizenship to a convenience-store robber who's holding a woman at gunpoint. You'd think that all three people in the scene might have had more pressing matters on their minds.

Also Showing: 02/08/2009

Rumba (77 mins, PG)

This Belgian, almost-silent comedy is a compilation of cartoonish sight gags. They're strung together into the story of two frighteningly skinny primary school teachers who spend all their free time at Latin dance contests until a car accident robs the husband of his memory, and the wife of half her leg. Jacques Tati fans should seek it out, but it's funny in theory more often than in practice. As brief as it is, the meticulous whimsy and sickly 1970s colour scheme, grow tiresome well before the end.

Mad, Sad & Bad (98 mins, 15)

Brit-Indian ensemble comedy drama about three grown-up siblings (Meera Syal, Nitin Ganatra and Zubin Varla), struggling to sort out their love lives, and to break away from their dipsomaniac mother. It deserves credit for sidestepping as many clichés as it does: it must be the first Anglo-Asian film in which mixed-race relationships pass without comment. But despite some decent lines, and fine performances from the three stars, it's a flatly shot, sluggishly paced effort that promises better work from the writer-director in future – especially if he learns that having someone list different varieties of cheese isn't always hilarious.

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there