Review: ‘Coco Before Chanel’ a rags to rags-with-riches story
November 10, 2009
Coco Chanel did not design clothes merely to make the people wearing them look good. At least as the bio-drama “Coco Before Chanel” has it, the French fashion icon was striking significant social blows by creating clothing that was driven by simplicity, and inspired by men’s attire.
“Coco Before Chanel” is a gorgeous-looking film. The French countryside of the early 20th century – filmed by director Anne Fontaine and cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne – is sumptuous and majestic, in all shades of green. Audrey Tautou, who portrays the young Coco Chanel, is, as always, adorable beyond adorable, with her charcoal eyes and dark hair somehow radiating light. Even the earliest scenes, set in the convent orphanage, the shabby apartment, the tailor shop and the tavern where she spent her early years, have a romantic allure. And the clothes are fabulous: The film may be a story of a young girl’s rise from rags to … well, another kind of rags, the kind that can bring riches, but Fontaine never forgets that her audience is aching to see fashion at its most fabulous.
But given what Chanel stood for – clothing as a philosophical statement – it would be a shame if “Coco Before Chanel” were nothing more than a treat for the eyes. Sometimes I wondered.
The famous designer who became Coco Chanel was born as Gabrielle, in 1883, in a provincial town. She was orphaned at a young age, though “Coco Before Chanel” is skimpy and vague on her familial details. She had an early fascination with clothing and, no doubt because of her background, she cast a critical eye toward the dress-to-impress creations that were favored in high French society. A free spirit – and an immensely willful young woman, considering her station in life – she particularly abhorred the physically constraining corsets and such, and found herself attracted to the relatively loose and comfortable attire that men got to wear.
Coco finds her way into the upper class. Of course: Even if we didn’t know that she was bound for international success, we know the conventions of story-telling, and if there is one iron-clad rule, the strong-willed orphan girl is going to claw her way upward in society. Fontaine, the director, seems to understand that this tale has been told over and over, and devotes relatively scant time to this piece of the story. Coco, performing as a cabaret singer, meets the wealthy playboy Etienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), who is duly attracted.
“Coco Before Chanel” focuses largely on Coco’s two significant relationships: with Etienne, and with Etienne’s friend and business acquaintance, an Englishman known as Boy (Alessandro Nivola). But what the film really emphasizes, again and again, is Coco’s headstrong spirit. Etienne gives her two days to leave his estate outside of Paris; Non, she decides – she will stay and teach herself to ride Etienne’s racehorses (and occasionally, reluctantly, ride Etienne himself). When she begins to feel secure as a member of the leisure class, she trades in Etienne for the younger, slightly more decent Boy. Ultimately, both serve a function more utilitarian than romantic – they provide Coco with connections and financing – and it’s hard to tell if we should celebrate or lament this fact.
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Ambitious and hard-working, Coco Chanel went on to make clothes – especially her black-and-white designs – that rejected the decadence and idleness of Etienne’s crowd. She never married – another statement of independence and iconoclasm. “Coco Before Chanel” becomes another examination of class. Routine, but fine-looking.