Coco Avant Chanel

The Herald: December 2009

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Coco Avant Chanel

Director: Anne Fontaine

Starring: Audrey Tatou, Benoît Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola, Marie Gillain, Emmanuelle Devos

Coco Chanel counted the Duke of Westminster among her many admirers. The Duke employed three couriers to race between London and Paris, carrying their love letters back and forth. When asked why she did not marry the Duke, she tartly replied, “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel.” Her acerbic wit and fashion decrees – “A woman who does not wear perfume has no future” – are almost as famous as images of her with a trademark cigarette dangling from her lips, a severe hat perched on her head, swathed in pearls. Chanel’s meteoric rise to fame among the fashion pack is marked by little black dresses, a departure from the corseted and tightly-trussed shape of women in the early 1900s, the use of unconventional fabrics such as jersey (usually associated with men’s undergarments at the time), the eponymous tweed suits, lithe, boyish looks, quilted handbags, simple hats and a neutral color palette, among many iconic fashion ‘firsts’. And then there is, of course, that bottle of liquid gold – Chanel No. 5 – that remains the perfume industry’s top-selling item to this day.

In Anne Fontaine’s Coco Avant Chanel, however, all this remains the stuff of the future of fashion. The woman we meet is Gabrielle – before ‘Coco’, before the House of Chanel, before she is declared the grand doyenne of fashion. Gabrielle (played remarkably by Audrey Tatou, the spitting image of the younger Chanel) is a little girl abandoned with her sister (Marie Gillain) at an orphanage, who waits every Sunday for her father to return. She is a singer in the music halls of Moulins ten years later, desperate to find her way to Paris. She is buffeted between the affections of two patrons, Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde) and Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel (Alessandro Nivola) and makes hats and clothes for Etienne’s well-heeled female friends after installing herself as defunct mistress of his estate. Etienne bestows the moniker ‘Coco’ – little pet – on Gabrielle. The name speaks volumes of her status amongst his rich friends – she is an entertainer, a novelty, a woman who dons men’s jackets, jodhpurs and ties and sews her own clothes.

Gabrielle struggles to remain independent, refusing to marry. She finally opens her first shop in 1913 in Paris with Boy’s help. It is only after Boy’s tragic death that she transforms herself into the designer we recognize today – she became known as ‘the woman who cried her eyes dry’ – and by 1919, boasted clients around the world. Anne Fontaine’s story of Chanel ends here. Fontaine claimed she wanted to depict the story of a woman who was an ‘iron hand in a velvet glove’  – however, her biopic scarcely introduces you to such a dynamic personality.

Chanel died at the age of 87 years with a career spanning more than 58 years. While it is understandable that Fontaine chose to focus on one of the many facets of Chanel’s career, the film is a disappointing portrait of a woman who became intrinsically associated with the modern movement that included Picasso, Stravinsky and Cocteau. Cocteau once said of Chanel, “She has, by a kind of miracle, worked in fashion according to rules that would seem to have value only for painters, musicians, poets.” Fontaine’s Chanel pursues a career in fashion for, what seems to be, purely financial reasons. The film lays a great emphasis on Chanel’s insistence on the free female form – no more corsets or towering plumage on hats – at the cost of exploring her aesthetic as a designer and a fashion pioneer.

During World War 2, Chanel was denounced as a collaborator, when she counted a Nazi officer amongst her beaus. She reportedly visited Winston Churchill on a secret peace mission and was arrested after the liberation of France. She fled to Switzerland and returned to America in the 1950s to introduce women to the Chanel suit. She continued to design until her death in 1971. Her life reads like a Hollywood movie – unfortunately, not Ms. Fontaine’s movie.