Two movies "based on a true story" brave the smooth rocks of the biopic 

In either side of The Belcourt this week, you have your pick of movies based on the lives of real people and purportedly true exploits. One tells the rise of couturier Coco Chanel from dismal childhood and poverty to a globe-spanning fashion empire. The other follows a hitherto little-known thug from relative comfort to a cycle of self-induced prison stays, mostly in solitary. One is filmed in high style and features visual razzmatazz to spare. The other is about Coco Chanel.

Yet both illustrate, to some degree, how tough it is to make an original movie about original lives. Even the most striking individuals, it seems, can have their particulars polished away by passing through the rock tumbler that is the biopic treatment.

Bronson largely finesses this problem—partly because there's no way to polish its turd of a hero, and mostly because he has no corporate empire to protect. Indeed, the infamous Mickey Peterson ("the most violent prisoner in Britain") invested his own identity in someone else's brand name: that of thin-lipped, crinkle-eyed vigilante poster boy Charles Bronson. Boasting a death wish that made his namesake look like the milkman of human kindness, the rechristened Bronson found jail a hellhole of bloody confrontations, hostage stand-offs and nightstick beatdowns—in short, everything he ever wanted.

With the action basically a never-ending loop circling back to a bruising, interrupted by Bronson's alarming carny-barker address to the viewer, the entire movie clenches and unflexes like a thrown punch. It has two basic modes—all hell breaking loose, and all hell about to break loose—and it savors the former in slow motion that turns throwdowns into berserk vaudeville, taffy pulls of flesh. The director, Nicolas Winding Refn, best known here for his Pusher trilogy, uses the lateral dollies, low angles and ironic hyperbole of A Clockwork Orange as his obvious touchstone: Instead of the old Ludwig von, Bronson gets his rocks off to Wagner, Delibes and gut-hammering techno beats.

But the bruiser hero isn't a mod cutie like Malcolm McDowell, who deflects our sympathy from his victims just by being more attractive. Smeared, bald naked, every muscle tensed for damage, Bronson looks more like a bug-eyed circus strongman who just spent a few months huffing ammonia. As played at the pitch of silent-movie hysteria in a star-making performance by British actor Tom Hardy, Bronson is pure id—unknowable, untamable, a living rebuke to the notion of rehabilitation. Even more than Alex or De Niro's Jake LaMotta, Hardy dares us to look in his cage and not see an animal.

Weirdly, it's Coco Before Chanel that comes to seem like a sentence in a padded cell. At first, its glossy tradition-of-quality treatment gives off a comforting familiarity, like those old lives-of-great-men books for grade-schoolers: the director, Anne Fontaine, renders the adolescent girl's painful childhood with storybook clarity. But once Audrey Tautou takes over the role, using the tilt of her cigarette as an index of personal growth, the movie hits its rags-to-riches marks with such generic pomp—next up: The Moment She Learned to Hem!—that you forget whose biopic you're even watching. By the time Alessandro Nivola turns up as the sort of standard-issue soulmate so doomed he ought to come accessorized with life insurance, you can be forgiven for wondering when Tautou's going to bust into "La Vie en Rose."

Bronson's form is inspired by imprisonment, by cycles of capture and release. Coco Before Chanel, conversely, is imprisoned by its form, by its obeisance to a genre that wallows in comforting trajectories of triumph mitigated by tragedy. "Coco Chanel never married," the movie concludes, before conceding her a few consolation prizes (fame, a legendary career, that sort of thing). Bronson, on the other hand, gives its hero the kind of send-off he'd appreciate: his sentencing record in blood-red stats, followed by the slamming-shut of a cell. A viewer leaving either film feels equally freed.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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