Coco Before Chanel (review)

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Clothes Make the Woman

Oh, sure, Chanel: She freed women from the tyranny of torturous undergarments. She didn’t merely dare to wear trousers, she made them fashionable for women. You know what else she did? She introduced the idea of the skinny, boyish figure as an impossible ideal. She made clothes that look better on a hanger than they do on most women, which has now become the, pardon the pun, model for today’s high fashion.
It wasn’t Chanel’s fault, of course: she was reacting to the impossible styles of her day, like the corset, which attempted to impose ridiculous, exaggerated hourglass shapes even where none existed. And hats that looked like a florist exploded.

Women: we just can’t win.

Audrey Tautou’s (The Da Vinci Code, A Very Long Engagement) Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel does look refreshingly sleek and sophisticated and modern when she first makes her appearance — at a house party thrown by her lover, bored gentry Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) — in his cut-down, pinned-in suit jacket and shirt, a jaunty necktie finishing off her menswear ensemble. She looks amazing, surrounded by women who flounce around like fluffy Edwardian fruit cups. But moments like that — in which you really feel the impact of Chanel’s legacy — are, tant pis, all too rare in Coco Before Chanel, which suffers, perhaps, from being too much like its subject: plain, unadorned, and practical to the point of dispassion.

It’s hard to know whether that’s the fault of Tautou — though it seems unlikely, given the ardent spirits she brought to Amelie a few years back — or of director Anne Fontaine (who wrote the screenplay with Camille Fontaine, based on a book by Edmonde Charles-Roux, a former editor of French Vogue). But there’s a anesthetized feel to this sedate biopic that suggests a wrongheadedness in its focus: maybe the more interesting part of her life was after she became the icon of fashion, when her style rebellion took hold, when she was accused of collaboration with the Nazis during the occupation of Paris. That sounds pretty darn exciting, actually.

Because there’s not a lot that’s awfully rebellious in the young Coco, as we see here, plodding through her early life. Yes, she had affairs with rich bastards like Balsan — who treats her like dirt, because he realizes she does not love him except for the material comforts he affords her, a poor girl who grew up in an orphanage and worked as a seamstress and dance-hall singer to make ends meet. (Poelvoorde, as Balsan, is by far the most dynamic presence onscreen, in a you-love-to-hate-him sort of way.) And with Hollywood-suave creeps like Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola [The Eye, Grace Is Gone], who’s wonderfully oily here), polo player and playboy. But this was France, and even in the pre-Great War period, a gal could be a someone’s mistress — even more than one someone’s mistress — and still be respectable. “I always knew I’d be no man’s wife,” she says to Capel at one point, and it’s true that the undercurrent of that is that her assertive independence was the necessary basis for all her work that was to come. But it wasn’t a particularly uncharacteristic attitude for a Frenchwoman, even of her time (as we see via Chanel’s sister, played by Marie Gillain, who finds herself in a similar situation with her aristocratic lover).

The moments that hint at how Chanel would rock the foundations of everything we think about when we think about fashion are almost asides here: how she snips the corset strings off two stolen dance hall dresses to make them more comfortable; how she decorates a straw hat with just a few simple accoutrements. They slide by barely noticed, as if this weren’t a film supposedly about those very moments. We’re left with the sense not that Chanel was consciously forging a path for herself, even if she could have had no idea where that path would take her, but that she was just as detached from her work, such as it was in these early days, as she may have been from her heart.

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