The first part of Coco Chanel’s story
by Molly Templeton
COCO BEFORE CHANEL: Directed by Anne Fontaine. Written by Anne Fontaine and Camille Fontaine, based on Chanel and Her World by Edmonde Charles-Roux. Cinematography, Christophe Beaucarne. Music, Alexandre Desplat. Starring Audrey Tautou, Alessandro Nivola, Benoît Poelvoorde, Marie Gillain and Emmanuelle Devos. Sony Pictures Classics, 2009. PG-13. 105 minutes.
As played by Audrey Tautou, the young Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel is a tiny, often unhappy woman, her dark eyes hard, her lips a terse line. An orphan turned cabaret singer and seamstress, Coco, in Anne Fontaine’s new film, is not yet the brand, the icon, she will eventually become. She’s a woman who wants to make her own way, a character prone to lying about her childhood and a sharp-eyed observer who takes in the behavior of the wealthy, the corsets women pinch themselves into, the feathers and lace and precarious hats that perch on their heads, the simple lines of menswear, the polo shirt of a lover — only to take it apart and translate it, slowly, into clothing that eventually transforms what women wear.
In Coco Before Chanel, you almost have to watch the clothing more than the actors to follow the growth of Coco the designer; the film sometimes pauses to watch Coco herself doing just that. On a trip to the seashore, she watches fishermen in striped shirts pulling in their catches; soon, Coco is wearing a very similar shirt. A lover’s clothing is cut to bits for a riding outfit; a friend is wrapped in demure black for an orphan costume; a hat takes shape in Coco’s careful hands.
Chanel’s is a story of intelligence and anger, pride and talent. When the cabaret life doesn’t work out, she takes up with a French playboy, Etienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), appearing at his doorstep and seemingly willing herself into the role of mistress. From here, she can make hats, learn to ride horses and shift herself into a better social position. Though he at first keeps her hidden from his wealthy friends, she works around him, even as he publicly undermines her. She befriends an actress, Emilienne (the fantastic Emmanuelle Devos), who falls for her hats, and eventually Coco meets Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola), with whom she falls, unexpectedly, in love. Every scene with Coco and Boy is elegant and streamlined, composed, stylish in its simplicity, and never more so than when she gets into his car on a winter’s night, snowflakes glittering in time with the sparkle of her dress.
For a time Coco Before Chanel coasts on the shimmery chemistry between Nivola and Tautou. The hardness with which Tautou infuses Coco withdraws a bit in his presence; her eyes lighten, her smile widens incrementally. To its credit, the film often feels like it’s made largely of the pieces that would have been left out of a more conventional biopic. Its point is in Tautou’s dark eyes, heavy with the awareness of the choices she has to make in order to gain more control over her world and bright with ideas as she takes in the clothing of the rich; you can see her mentally stripping and reshaping women’s elaborate gowns, or recutting men’s jacket’s for women’s bodies or simply, beautifully, going riding in a pair of pants.
“I gave women a sense of freedom; I gave them back their bodies: bodies that were drenched in sweat, due to fashion’s finery, lace, corsets, underclothes, padding,” Chanel is quoted as saying. In the last scenes of Fontaine’s film, an older Coco watches models go by, looking closely at each garment as its wearer descends a staircase. The clothing is gorgeous, but there’s something else telling in the images: The models are all tall, slender, languid and long, cutting a very specific figure. Chanel may have freed women from corsets and underclothes, but if the clothing won’t lace us up and tie us in, then we’ll be expected to mold our bodies into what’s deemed the appropriate shape anyway.
Coco Before Chanel begins Friday, Nov. 6, at the Bijou.