Coco Before Chanel

1 Nov

Director: Anne Fontaine (2009)

Biopics are tricky playing field for the film industry in my eyes. They can either be amazing (Walk the Line) or so horrendous you are almost thankful their deceased inspirer is probably spinning too much in their grave to ever be aware of its existence (Factory Girl). A film about a fashion designer, and a minimalist one at that, poses an even greater challenge. As a designer, Chanel is famed across the globe, as a person, we couldn’t really say. Enter Anne Fontaine and Coco Before Chanel. The film follows the life of Gabrielle Chanel, abandoned at an orphanage as a child, she grows up to work as a singer in a bar with her sister, and a part time seamstress. But this is relatively peripheral at this stage… While entertaining the rich masses with songs of lost dogs called ‘Coco’ (you didn’t think she was born with such an effortlessly stylish name do you?) she meets a certain Baron Balsan, a wealthy patron who takes a shine to young Gabrielle. Almost spurred on by her perpetual rebuttals of his advances, he pursues her until she gives in and become his (somewhat unwilling) consort. With his connections and money, she is granted access to high class French society who handily provide an avid audience and market for her hand crafted designs. However, seeing it as a mere hobby rather than a credible career, her eyes begin to wander eventually falling upon Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, Balsan’s rather dashing English friend who succeeds in seducing Coco with his wit and charm but also his belief and support in her blatant talents as a designer.

Aside from Coco’s talent for making hats and her early career as a seamstress, fashion takes its place in the sidelines for the best part of the film allowing us to learn more about the woman herself, Coco before Chanel, if you will. I love it when there’s some intellectual reasoning behind a title.

As a character piece, the film is unsympathetic to Coco and resists the temptation to portray her life through the rose tinted glasses of a fan girl. Instead Fontaine presents Coco as a hard woman, determined to succeed even if this is at the expense of her relationships with others. Her feelings for the men in her life seem to come as a surprise to her as gradually, and seemingly without her knowledge, the walls come down and she finds herself falling for them. This vulnerability behind the distant and sarcastic front she maintains throughout brings out Coco’s humanity as tragedy strikes her life towards the end of the film.

Tautou could not have been better cast as Coco, while the goofiness of Amelie is a long way away from the demure character of Gabrielle Chanel, that same playful rebellion remains in the way Coco wears her hair, the way her cigarette dangles so gracefully from her lips, the way her cocky remarks never fail to stun the men so used to silent women…

The final scenes of a notably older and sterner Coco overseeing a lavish fashion show comes almost as an afterthought to the biographical focus of the film but in truth, the sombre tone that echoes throughout these final scenes as she slides down the mirror, while the audience applauds, has just been explained.

Cinematographically, the film is beautiful. Shot in understated and muted tones, like Chanel’s clothes themselves, it perfectly captures the beauty of turn of the century France. However, I am undecided whether I want Fontaine to make a Coco After Chanel, or Coco During Chanel (maybe they should work on that title…). It would be all too easy for any sequel to fall away from the subtle praise of Chanel as a designer and manifest itself as a clichéd catwalk homage. For me, the muted beauty of Coco Before Chanel is enough for me to continue lusting after gold buttons and flannel blazers and, since I have not been graced with the delicate bone structure of a Chanel model to pull off cigarette pants, will continue to train myself in the art of cigarette dangling…


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