Coco Before Chanel

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Posted September 24, 2009 in Film

Anne Fontaine’s biopic of Coco Chanel sees the world through the austere designer’s eyes. When she walks through a crowd, the camera is careless with faces, but devoted to cuffs, hats and lace pleats. After 20 minutes in her starched white collars and navy jackets, the gorgeously frivolous dresses of the rich who surround her are overdone confections of feathers and tulle. Halfway through the movie, no matter what you’re wearing, you’ll hate it. That’s a fair price to pay for Audrey Tautou’s great turn as the steel-spined heroine who would smack you across the face for mistaking her for a damsel in distress. When we meet Coco, she’s a poor and restless orphan disdainful of drudgery. Hard work is fine; thanklessness isn’t. Though she hems and mends in the back room of a clothing store that has the dreariness of florescent lights years before they were in use, Coco views her situation like a temporary setback. She’s no Jane Austen romantic waiting for a husband (Though that option suits sister Adrienne.). Her best career paths are bar hostess, a gig akin to a French geisha, or the stage—except she’s a bum actress and singer. When a wealthy nobleman named Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) goads her into a no-strings affair, she matches his cavalier attitude toward their bedroom antics. Even when she stalks him to his countryside estate and settles into one of his many guest bedrooms, she endures his public cruelty and nocturnal visits with stern elegance—she’s looking for a leg up, not love. Tautou captures Coco’s pride, which defined her and her aesthetic as much as the anti-corset, anti-decadence clothes she’d revolutionize the world with a decade later. When she boyishly straddles a horse or reworks men’s collared shirts, her modernity still startles. Much of the film is content to contrast her with the feckless aristocracy Balsan has thrown her into, a culture where people gloat, “Work? What a strange idea” and a culture that has no idea that within years it will be extinguished by World War I. Several times during Coco’s travails, we want to hold history over their heads, but Fontaine keeps hubris as subtle as a well-lined sleeve. In the second half of the film, Coco falls for British industrialist Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola) causing pulses to flutter at the fear that Fontaine might make the misstep of steering this portrait of a strong woman into a bodice-ripping ditch. But the detour circles back around to show why Coco’s only life and legacy was her career. The film clips off right when we’re about to see Coco reign supreme over the snobs. We leave unsatisfied, but only because Fontaine and Tautou have left us wanting more of this unpossessable woman.

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