COCO AVANT CHANNEL

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Audrey Tautou plays Coco Chanel in this film about the fashion giant’s early years.

BY JAY STONE

There seems to be no end of interest in Coco Chanel — much more than you would have suspected could have been generated by a collarless white jacket or a little black dress. Coco has come to mean something: female liberation, perhaps, or the gritty self-determination that takes one from an orphanage to one’s own fashion house. Or maybe it’s just that she’s a great subject for movies because the costumes are guaranteed to be sensational.

But Chanel never really emerges from Coco Avant Chanel, Anne Fontaine’s re-telling of the early years. Coco was in many ways a self-invention — in the film she lies consistently about all aspects of her childhood — so the movie, based on Edmonde Charles-Roux’s book L’Irreguliere, is something of an educated guess. An educated guess in great hats.

The facts, as we see them, are that Gabrielle Chanel and her sister Adrienne are dropped off at an orphanage by their faithless father, and 15 years later they are Audrey Tautou and Marie Gillain, singing in a provincial cabaret in turn-of-the-century France. Their signature song, “Coco at the Trocadero,” provides her nickname.

At the cabaret, Coco meets Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), a millionaire horse-owner, and she shows up at his castle one day to insinuate herself into his life.

“You can stay two days,” he tells her, and indeed, several years later she does leave. In the meantime, she becomes his mistress/plaything — at one stage, Balsan “loans” her to a friend, an Englishman named Arthur “Boy” Capel (Allesandro Nivola), who may have been the love of her life, although Coco was a bit prickly about that.

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Audrey Tautou is Coco Chanel and Alessandro Nivola is Arthur “Boy” Capel,
the man she loves, in “Coco Before Chanel.”

“A woman in love is helpless,” she says. “Like a begging dog.” And Coco Chanel had no intention of being a begging dog.

Boy Capel takes Coco away for two days to Deauville, where she sees fishermen wearing those striped French sweaters and adopts the idea for herself. Throughout her time with Balsan, we see Coco sizing up the current fashions — she hated the long fussy dresses of the era, the corsets, the jewelry (“they are showing off their silverware”), the feathered hats, which she called meringues from a pastry shop. She loved men’s clothing, and Balsan’s tweed sports coats are just one item that provides inspiration.

In the movie’s final scene, Coco has become Chanel and she is sitting on the steps of a fashion show as a parade of her dresses go by. She is wearing a Chanel suit.

Coco Avant Chanel is in many ways about the cost of that suit.

Picking through the Chanel myth, Fontaine discovers a hard-edged young woman who holds the aristocracy in contempt, although she is happy enough to lie around all day reading books, hating Balsan’s friends and being inspired by the passing parade of fashion.

Tautou has the look of Chanel, a co-gamin, but she is pretty well confined to two expressions, sulking and flirting. It isn’t until late in the picture, when she feels she may be falling in love, that we see any of the fire that could have driven such a woman.

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French actress Audrey Tautou finds it tiring playing Chanel,
the intense dynamo who built a fashion empire.

The movie meanders through this story, more concerned with the naturalistic settings and the fashionable accoutrements.

However, this may be an occupational hazard when dealing with the contradictions of Coco: she is a similarly elusive presence in another current movie, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, about her affair with the revolutionary composer (that movie, which is designed so that every room looks like a Chanel suit, takes up where Coco Avant Chanel ends.)

Still, naturalistic settings and fashionable accoutrements are nothing to sneeze at, and Coco Avant Chanel finds some resonance when it dresses Tautou in long wool overcoats and stands her at the edge of the beach, her back to us, to form an evocative image, or sends her to a costume party wearing a cut-down men’s suit and wide hat, looking like a Belle Epoque version of Annie Hall.

As for the woman inside the clothes, she remains a mystery, someone who — like a polo shirt that she converts into a cardigan sweater — has been altered so much it’s impossible to know who she really was. That’s the story that Coco Avant Chanel never penetrates. The costumes, however, are sensational.

See Related: FILM

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