Rarely have I seen a movie more apologetically but accessibly deferential to the intelligence of its viewers than director Anne Fontaine’s beautifully thought-out 2009 film “Coco avant Chanel” (“Coco Before Chanel”) starring Audrey Tautou. Based on the early life of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971), the film chronicles Chanel’s rise from obscurity to become one of the most innovative and celebrated fashion designers of the 20th century. If it were simply a bio-pic there would be plenty to chew over, for Chanel was a complex and unconventional woman whose past she intentionally kept somewhat obscured during her own lifetime. Yet this stunning production also assumes that the viewer will be able to pick up on the influences which shaped Chanel’s work, taking the piece outside of what might otherwise seem a made-for-tv costume drama and creating something extraordinary.
The film begins with the young Gabrielle Chanel arriving at a provincial Catholic orphanage with her sister, where the two are being left by the father, who is either unwilling or unable to take care of them; the film never makes this clear, and Chanel herself does not help. In fact, from this point on the viewer should be aware that during her lifetime, Chanel changed her biography numerous times, depending on whom she was speaking to and what she wanted them to believe. Throughout the film, as she moves from working in a dressmaker’s shop and singing in a bar (where she obtains the nickname “Coco”) to auditioning for the dance hall and becoming a live-in mistress, we see Chanel lie about some aspect of her upbringing, background, connections, experiences, and so on.
In doing so Chanel is creating the persona she feels is necessary in order for her to scramble up out of the gutter. To her surprise, she comes to understand that it will be in fashion, rather than in the bedroom or on the stage, where she will make her name. But make no mistake: Coco wants the good life and is going for it, conventions be damned. When she and her sister are observing from a distance some of the wealthy assembled together, her sister comments how bored they all look. Chanel replies, presciently, “Soon they will be willing to kill just to dine with us.”
It is perhaps difficult for us today, when an item such as a Chanel tweed suit (or a knock-off of one) is considered de rigeur among successful women, to realize what a shock Chanel’s style was to the women of her time. The film takes pains to point out to us how exceedingly uncomfortable it was to be considered well-dressed at the turn of the previous century, wearing yards and yards of fabrics, heavy make-up and jewelry, with giant hats pinned into long ropes of hair. At one point Chanel meets her sister at the races; the latter is wearing a long, fitted white lace gown, and explains that it is the latest fashion from Paris. Chanel snorts at its impracticality and remarks, “I’m sure that train picks up a lot of mud.”
In another, beautifully shot scene, Chanel walks down the boardwalk at Deauville toward the sea, wearing a simple plaid dress and straw hat of her own design. Despite the sun and the heat the women on either side of her are cinched into enormous, heavy dresses that cover every part of their bodies, which of course are dripping in jewels. On top of their heads are hats piled with accordion folds of material that then tie beneath their chins. The modern movie-goer, watching these women try to keep from moving about too much, can only imagine how stiflingly hot and uncomfortable it was.
As she walks past them with the love of her life Arthur “Boy” Capel, Chanel makes catty, but well-observed comments about these supposedly fashionable women. About one, wearing a huge necklace which spreads like a peacock’s tail across her chest, Chanel says, “She’s wearing the family silver.” About a group of others in enormous, uncomfortable hats she sneers, “Looks like a bunch of meringues.” When Capel offers to take her dancing that evening, she explains that she does not have any evening clothes. He counters that she should make a simple evening dress, like the one that she has on.
This is the impetus for Coco to create the famous “little black dress”, Chanel’s lifelong mantra which has become a staple of women’s attire down to the present day: a simple, comfortable, but elegant black cocktail dress that every woman should have in their closet and which can be worn to any dressy occasion. Chanel and the tailor whom she visits that afternoon have quite a discussion about how the dress is to be constructed; Chanel knows what she wants, but needs encouragement from Boy to keep the dress from looking too conventional. When Chanel and Capel waltz around the hotel ballroom later than evening, she stands out in a sea of more enormous white dresses, feathers, and frippery with her simple dress and hairstyle. It is a look which, despite the passage of nearly 100 years, would be completely at home at an evening event today.
It is in these moments of observation, and there are many, in which the filmmakers excel, by giving us a taste of materials, experiences, and the like which came to have an influence on Chanel as an artist. I use the term “artist” intentionally for, as a friend pointed out last night in discussion of the film, one cannot separate Chanel’s radical departure from the fashion of her own day without considering what was going on artistically at the same time. Picasso, Stravinsky, and Gropius were doing in painting, music, and architecture what Chanel was doing in fashion: learning the conventional and then rejecting it to create something new.
The filmmakers take full advantage of the environment that surrounds Chanel to not only provide hints and suggestions of what she will do later in life, but also to create beautiful works of art themselves. Many of the scenes have an autumnal palette to them, like the leaves falling at the House of Elrond, for the Gilded Age does not know that war is on the horizon and that the world they know is coming to an end. Indeed, the often-found-riding Chanel is, from their perspective, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, if they would but recognize it.
When Gabrielle Chanel makes the final transition to become Coco Chanel, the lighting changes: the golden glow disappears and black and white come to dominate the camera’s eye. There is one scene in which she is shown, working alone at night at her sewing machine not long after Boy’s death in an automobile accident, where the only source of light is a sort of gooseneck lamp. Virtually everything in the scene is jet black but for the bright scarlet fabric she is working on, and Chanel stops her work to reflect on and mourn her lost love. It is a short sequence but a brilliant composition, with its vivid slash of red cutting through the darkness reminding us of the work of Eduard Manet or Edward Hopper.
Audrey Tautou is, as ever, an actress who is not only capable of wonderful subtlety in her expressions, but also develops her character through such things as movement, posture, and manner of speaking. Because my French is practically non-existent, in fact I did not pick up on a further subtlety in the performance which was pointed out by a colleague. During the course of the film, just as she visually becomes more and more polished, as she moves up the ladder Chanel’s French also becomes more and more polished. By the final montage when Gabrielle, in the fully-realized persona of Coco Chanel, is seated at the top of her famous staircase watching the models parade past her, the transformation is complete: Tautou is like a Horst photograph of Chanel come to life.
It is interesting to consider the fact that, from a practical perspective, Chanel has had a far greater influence on people’s day-to-day lives than any of the aforementioned artistic giants of the early 20th century. Yet her contributions may not be recognized by the general public for the enormous significance they carry in this regard, in part because she made clothes, and in part because she was a woman. If you are at all aware of the rag trade, or at least have a curiosity about anthropology and sociological development in the 20th century, you will find much to muse over in this film. Even if you do not fit into these categories however, you will enjoy the stunning cinematography of this film in its re-creation of a now-departed age, as seen through the eyes of one of the figures responsible for ushering it out.