Coco Before Chanel
Written and Directed by Anne Fontaine
Starring Audrey Tautou and Benoit Poelvoorde
Now playing in selected theaters
The mere title of Coco Before Chanel may intimidate moviegoers with no interest in fashion. But even the least fashion-aware recognize the name as the face of haute couture. Perhaps these moviegoers will be happier to know that Coco Before Chanel is an almost biographical portrayal of Gabriel Chanel (‘Coco’ was her pet name), played by the adorable French actress Audrey Tautou, before Chanel became the legendary fashion icon and businesswoman.
Tautou embodies the qualities all I envisioned in Chanel while also bringing a further dimension to the designer. Tatou is effective at not only portraying Chanel’s effortless (and quite revolutionary) casual chicness but also Chanel’s transformation from a poor orphaned singer at a seedy saloon to the mistress of French playboy extraordinaire Étienne Balsan to the lover of English businessman Arthur Capel. While Balsan is Chanel’s ticket into high-society, Capel is the one who rouses her out of her jaded disbelief in love.
The film makes no attempt to make young Chanel a likable and soft person. How could they? A young woman with no status and no money could only propel herself forward by relying on her own abilities and occassionally, pride. Tautou’s depiction of Chanel is a prickly ambitious young woman who confidently sets her mind upon what she finds right. Outspoken, unwilling to back down, and with a firm set of opinions unhindered by anyone and their beliefs, Chanel plows through life with the mental strength of a Ford.
The contrast between a character with such a steely personality and such a fragile countenance is a bit unsettling. However, Tautou is able to break her trademark elfish cuteness. With her glittering dark eyes, she’s able to combine both sensuality and innocence in her attitude. In the scene of Chanel and Capel’s first meeting, Tautou floats into the room in oversized men’s pajamas, her beast of hair streaming about her like a raven halo. Although far from her later neat structured jacket and pencil skirt combination, Capel voiced it best: “You are so elegant.”
Moving on to the cinematography of the film, much of it was akin to that in Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. The finery and frills of the dresses the aristocratic women wore to the horse races, the antique-filled library rooms of Balsan’s estate. and even the elaborate décor of the tea table provided a cohesive imagery of opulence and the slacker lifestyle of the French in the late nineteenth century. This lifestyle was the foil to Chanel’s own simplicity and disdain for the decadence favored at the time. She found the limitations of both fashion and society restricting. The women of her days, both aristocratic and commonfolk, were discouraged from working and having ambitions of their own. The aristocratic women partook in affairs such as horse races just so they could display all their family heirlooms. Otherwise, they just lounged about, squandering time in senseless debauchery.
While Chanel’s stay with Balsan as his live-in mistress unveiled the true life of French socialites, she ultimately found herself bored and stifled by the triviality and vapidness of Balsan’s lifestyle. It was in Capel that she found both her freedom and herself. Although their love story is something difficult to convey properly in words, the thoughts and decisions Capel pushed Chanel to were crucial to who she became. After Capel agrees to sponsor Chanel’s hat store, he finds her business a success and exclaims, “I gave you freedom.” Indeed, it was not only escape from her previous ennui but also the social dependence women had to their family and their lovers.
Although Chanel’s seamstress skills are noted in certain parts of the film (for instance, she had a fondness for making fashion-forward hats which led to her later boutique business in hats), the film glosses over her journey to establishing a fashion empire. The last ten minutes of the film flash forward her next twenty years, a montage of snapshots with Chanel snipping and cutting away, but our understanding of that passage of time is merely cursory.
While I enjoyed the film as a whole, without the name Chanel and, of course, Audrey Tautou as part of the main cast, Coco Before Chanel could have easily been a well-shot wry French film about the lives of the nineteenth century’s socialites and a messy love triangle in the midst of everything. Granted, both the actors Benoit Poelvoorde (Balsan) and Alessandro Nivola (Capel) held their own against Tautou’s exquisite performance, without Tautou and her portrayal of Chanel, the film would been a completely different affair.
I was still mildly frustrated that the film only gave the briefest nod to Chanel’s climb and triumph in the fashion world, but I suppose that would be told in another story. As for Coco Before Chanel, it really is about Gabrielle Chanel’s maturation and how the people and circumstances around her helped her become the great icon she was.