There are endless assumptions made about the infamous fashion label Chanel and the woman behind its creation. While the name “Chanel” evokes visions of perfect tweed suits, black and white color schemes, eternal class and Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel herself was an infinitely more complex and radiant person than her designs may lead on. According to Anne Fontaine’s latest film, Chanel was down right rebellious and incredibly strong for a woman of her era.
Coco Before Chanel shows Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel as an ineffably powerful and liberated woman for her time, different than her more shallow and subordinate female counterparts. Chanel is played by Audrey Tautou (Amélie, The Da Vinci Code), who captures Chanel’s beauty as well as her rebelliousness in the subtle way that only Tautou can. Chanel’s boyish charm — manifested in the movie through the various outfits she creates from her lover’s clothes — and her daring attitude make Tautou shine in this genuinely entertaining yet sentimental film.
While the movie seems to depict the entire story of Chanel’s early life, some important events are left out (including the opening of a store in Paris before the one depicted in the film). Still, the main plotline of Coco Before Chanel focuses on the origin and creation of Chanel’s iconic style — as both the empress of the label’s empire and as a person.
Because viewers are constantly drawn to Chanel’s wry personality and bold interaction with others, they may forget about the fashion basis for Chanel’s story; inevitably, the film serves to remind them. One minute Chanel will be pondering an event to attend with her lover and the next she is cutting his shirt into pieces and making a dress; in another, partygoers compliment Chanel’s straw hat, motivating her to open a hat shop. Later, Chanel rides on one of lover Étienne Balsan’s (Benoît Poelvoorde) horses and endless jockey-inspired outfits appear. All of these fashion references remind viewers that this woman was, at her core, a designer. But Fontaine does an incredible job of making the audience forget how Chanel the brand is perceived today and focuses on where Chanel the individual drew inspiration.
The film begins with Chanel’s less-than-idealistic childhood as she is orphaned with her sister Adrienne Chanel (Marie Gillain). The sisters leave the orphanage once they are old enough and begin working as seamstresses and nightclub singers (their most popular song is about a little dog “Coco,” from which stemmed Chanel’s infamous nickname). The sisters struggle for money, and men become their main source of both economic stability and friendship (and for Coco, clothing). When Adrienne leaves Coco for one of her suitors, Chanel turns to an old friend and on-and-off lover, Balsan.
Balsan treats Chanel poorly during most of her stay, making her perform for his affluent friends and banishing her away from his parties. Balsan’s crude mannerisms, which are absolutely nailed by Poelvoorde, and lavish ways of living are new to the humble Chanel; as a way to distract herself when he upsets her, Chanel takes an interest in his horses and creates hats that become rather popular with his bourgeoise girlfriends.
Balsan’s high-class status and social life is both intriguing and infuriating during her stay, but Chanel soon finds comfort in Balsan’s mysterious business partner Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola). The two become instant friends and eventual lovers, connected by their equal disdain for Balsan’s arrogant nature, and their flourishing relationship incites an unexpected jealousy from the usually indifferent Balsan. Chanel’s love for Capel, however, is ruined by unfortunate circumstances and Chanel is crushed. Her incredible sorrow turns into devotion to designing and she creates her first fashion line — the line that becomes the iconic Chanel.
The viewer fosters a particular connection with Chanel in large part to Tautou’s brilliance. The character is both shy and womanly, yet assertive and manly; beautiful but boyish, and ever more modern than her female counterparts. The movie not only shows an unexpected side of Chanel, but of a female figure in this time. Fontaine has captured a woman’s personal liberation in a time when oppression of women was simply woven into the fabric of societal norms. While this is not immediately evident as Chanel’s story unfolds, the audience is left with the impression of Chanel’s unwavering strength and determintation.
The audience is absolutely engulfed by the moment even more so when tragedy strikes in Chanel’s life. Tautou’s performance is so heartfelt that an audience’s connection to her character is much greater than to an average character in an average film. This is also a testament to Fontaine’s talent as a director, for Coco Before Chanel is anything but average. While many movies are fluffy and aimless, leaving the audience feeling cheated when the end credits roll, Coco Before Chanel gives the audience more than what was expected.
Perhaps the French spoken in the film (with English subtitles) transports the audience further into the film, or perhaps Tautou’s performance is more gripping than most. Whatever the “it” factor is about Coco Before Chanel, it gives audiences more than they could expect or imagine from a fashion film, and it leaves them with a story of a woman who will forever remain unforgettable.