Bold outsider reinvents chic in ‘Coco Before Chanel’
Who doesn’t love a big, lush, biographical drama about a real-life woman who defies the conventions of her day to make her own place in the world? As long as the writing is at least plausible, and the actors don’t trip over the furniture, this is a pretty fool proof formula—especially for female audiences hungry for stories of self-empowerment. The story of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, who rose from impoverished orphan and rural milliner to become one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th Century, is—sorry— tailor-made for this kind of treatment. Still, in her thoughtful and persuasive Coco Before Chanel, Belgian filmmaker Anne Fontaine brings something extra to the mix; every lovely frame of the film is informed by the filmmaker’s resonant empathy for Chanel as a stylist, a woman, and an outsider hungry to succeed on her own terms.
Adapted by Fontaine and co-scriptwriter Camille Fontaine (no relation), from the first half of the 1975 Chanel biography by Edmonde Charles-Roux, the film begins like classic Gothic fiction. Just before the turn of the last century, little Gabrielle and her sister arrive by horse and cart at a gloomy, foreboding gray-brick orphanage in the French countryside—where their roving father abandons them after the death of their mother.
Fifteen years later, Gabrielle (now played by the piquant Audrey Tatou), is a young woman working at a seamstress’ shop in the town of Moulins. At night, she and her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain) sing music hall songs at a neighborhood bistro and pass the hat, hoping to finance their dream of a stage career. Their signature song is about a lost little dog called “Coco,” which also becomes Gabrielle’s nickname. Admired for her trim figure and dark eyes, but notorious for her “blunt” tongue, Coco doesn’t care about chatting up the customers. But when Adrienne goes off with a baron, and her own stage aspirations fail, Coco sensibly allies herself to middle-aged, but good-hearted, playboy Etienne Balsan, and moves to his estate outside of Paris.
Under Balsan’s financial protection (although irritated, if resigned, that she has to become his “geisha,” in return), Coco tries to decide what work will bring her the fame and fortune in Paris that she craves. Of course, among Balsan’s leisure class, work is a foreign concept in general; in particular, French men consider themselves too “gallant” to “let” their women work. But Coco is as unconcerned with the proprieties as she is horrified by the stifling corsets and poofy “meringue” hats that fashionable ladies wear, along with the feathers and jewels with which rich women bedeck themselves so they won’t look “poor.”
Coco scandalizes and delights Balsan’s friends by altering his clothes into simple, elegant, freestyle outfits for herself; in her soft felt hat, menswear shirts, tailored vests and trousers, she strides among them like a proto-Annie Hall, her palette basic black and white, her silhouette chic and uncluttered. Soon, Balsan’s dear friend and ex-mistress, Emilienne (Emmanuelle Devos), a popular stage actress, is hiring Coco to design her hats onstage. Then the independent Coco is blindsided by the last thing she expects—to fall in love with Balsan’s crony, Anglo-French businessman Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola).
The illicit love affair angle is de rigueur in this kind of movie, of course. But the real love story here is between Coco and her own evolving sense of personal style, which will change the way women wear clothes for the rest of the century. Fontaine is uncannily deft at slipping future influences into the fabric of her film as Coco’s story progresses. The most breathtaking moments are those understated ones when Coco glimpses and begins to process something that will become part of her signature style: the sober black and starched white points of a nun’s headdress at the orphanage, or striped fishermen’s jerseys on the beach at Deauville. (In one swoony shot, Coco stretches out in her crisp black-and-white outfit against a riotous pattern of rusty autumn leaves.) Well-acted, good-looking and stylish, Fontaine’s film is an intriguing portrait of a revolution in the making.
COCO BEFORE CHANEL ★★★
With Audrey Tatou, Benoit Poelvoorde, and Alessandro Nivola. Written by Anne Fontaine and Camille Fontaine. Directed by Anne Fontaine. A Sony Classics release. (PG-13) 105 minutes. In French with English subtitles.