France (2015) Dir. Jérôme Cornuau
You would think, as host to some of the most prominent fashion houses across the globe, France would be the last country to satirise the industry in their cinema but Chic! exists to prove that theory incorrect. I’ve not seen The Devil Wear Prada so I can’t say if this film is a rip off of that or not but I imagine some themes and tropes are interchangeable between the two.
Front and centre of this tale is Hélène Birk (Marina Hands), commercial director for the prestigious Alicia Ricosi fashion house, a stiff, overworked executive under the thumb of her demanding, petulant CEO Alan Bergam (Laurent Stocker). They are panicking as the eponymous designer (Fanny Ardant) has split with her latest beau and with just a few days to go before her latest exhibition, has lost her inspiration.
During a party for Alicia, Hélène has a public argument with gardener Julien Lefort (Éric Elmosnino) spoiling the evening. When a despondent Alicia leaves the party, she encounters Julien and is smitten with his unaffected manner, inspiring her to design again. Realising this could save the show, Alan orders Hélène to keep Julien onside to be Alicia’s muse, but it seems romance may blossom elsewhere.
The barbs thrown at the fashion industry are not as trenchant as they could be but they are present in the characters more than the story, which is reserved for the predictable, unlikely romance that simmers beneath the pretentious workings of the world of haute couture. There is a bitter irony in the fact that Marina Hands was in the 2006 French version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, so she has form in romping with the gardener!
Obviously, this is a less steamy affair but it isn’t meant to be one in the first place, and from Hélène’s first appearance we can see why. Typical of the high flying, ambitious, career minded type that she is, Hélène is part of a self-important hierarchy within the fashion house that bites at those beneath them on the corporate ladder – Alicia barks, Alan jumps then snaps at Hélène who in turn flames her underlings.
Never short of a pithy comeback, Hélène meets her match when she refuses payment to Julien for his garnering work in lieu of no contract being signed between them. Julien, choosing his moment perfectly, decides to share his opinion to everyone at the party during the speeches, naming no names but dropping enough hints about the classless, cold and selfish madam in the room.
Of course when Hélène has to eat humble pie and persuade Julien to return with her and play muse for Alicia, she is aghast but the cowardly suck-up Alan forces the issue, claiming this to be a potentially bigger disaster than Pompeii, the Hindenburg, Titanic, 9/11 and Brexit combined. Julien naturally is not interested in the slightest so Hélène is forced to play dirty.
Julien is now our fish out of water both geographically and culturally, but for a huge payday and the chance to annoy Hélène, who he has been force to lodge with, he is going with the flow. For Alicia the ideas are bursting but so is her ego and she ends up turfing Hélène out of her own home to be closer to Julien, creating a sympathetic bond between the previously feuding couple.
So far, so conventional. Where the script lets itself down is by taking too long to get to this point, almost 45 minutes into this 100 minute film, leaving it a little too late to slowly build on the relationship between Hélène and Julien. Sacrificed by this move is the opposite world building of Julien’s humble bucolic coastal life against the bustle of the urban fashion industry.
Also underdeveloped is the reason Julien has to accept the deal and that is his daughter. Not that this needed to be a dominant focus of the script but as a character she is very non-descript and barely has any lines. This makes the whole scenario feel rushed and something of an afterthought once the central premise was conceived and fleshed out, and ultimately comes across as a contrivance.
With the plot going down Predictable Lane, how does the spoofing of the fashion world hold up? During the second act, Alicia is reduced to the odd cameo while her minions run amok over Hélène’s house and her life. Alan was never meant to be more than a conduit to make Hélène’s life miserable and to suck up to Alicia, and in that respect he is used perfectly, providing most of the comedy through his hysterical overreactions.
It is the energy Laurent Stocker brings to the proceedings and willingness to play someone so openly obsequious that keeps our attention, along with the chemistry created between Éric Elmosnino and Marina Hands, the latter able to successfully navigate her character from stuffy workaholic trying to please to someone realising she needs to also please herself.
Fanny Ardant is the nominal star yet she breezes in and out of the picture, this whim parallel to the caprice of her character, and Ardant plays her with a knowing sense of the ludicrous premise that drives her. The production values are glossy and vibrant where required, but Jérôme Cornuau’s greater experience in TV shows in the clumsy pacing and protracted set up in the opening half.
We can assume that the romance direction of the story was perhaps a safety net installed to avoid upsetting the fashion industry so this was to distract attention away from the satire, which could have been sharper, and not pierced the ridiculous egos within the industry that would be too vain to notice anyway.
It might be light on the lampooning of such a self-unaware world but Chic! is a typically breezy French romp that doesn’t aspire high enough with the potential of its central concept and the top-notch cast, whose efforts unquestionably raise this above complete dismissal.