Coco avant Chanel

2009-09-01 09:08

What it's about:

The movie chronicles the early life and loves of Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel (played by Amélie star, Audrey Tautou), who went from abandoned child to saloon singer, to the most celebrated figure in fashion.

What we thought:

The name is synonymous with elegance, prestige and glamour, but the woman who took women out of constricting corsets and put them into comfy trousers was loath to be honest about her humble beginnings, even towards the end of her life. Chanel was born in 1883 to a poor family. Her mother died of tuberculosis when she was 12 and she and her sisters were abandoned by their father to an orphanage until she was 18. Chanel chose to invent a more fanciful childhood than this, and watching the misery of her early years play out in this lovingly (if laboriously) filmed biopic, one could hardly blame her.

Since this is a French film about a French icon known for her style and simplicity, there is very little fanfare or stylised exposition that might be associated with the subject matter. Ambitious and determined, she insinuates herself into the life of playboy horse breeder Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), whom she met while working as a singer at a saloon frequented by rich army generals. After giving her the nickname 'Coco', Balsan invites her to stay with him on his estate as his mistress, where he entertains the cream of Parisian society.

Here Chanel is exposed to the gaudy feathers, bows, jewellery and other accessories that passed for modern French fashion, a time when women dressed for the pleasure of men, rather than for their own comfort. She rebels against the trends, opting for a more minimal approach to her personal style, rejecting corsets and voluminous petticoats for simple, clean lines and pieces adapted from men's clothing. Her androgynous, rebellious look intrigued, rather than shocked the glitterati, and it wasn’t long before she was set up with her own hat-making studio in Paris, courtesy of Balsan. Her dalliance with Balsan also led to her passionate affair with British entrepreneur, Arthur 'Boy' Capel (Alessandro Nivola) who became an early investor in her business. At the centre of it all, Chanel missions along, not giving anything away as she makes inroads with some of the most influential people in France, perhaps hinting at the shrewd businesswoman she was to become.

The more distasteful details of her past as a Nazi sympathiser during World War 2, her affair with German officer and Nazi spy Hans Gunther von Dincklage, and her banishment from France after the war is conveniently omitted. That would undoubtedly have made a more interesting movie, but, as the title states, this is the Coco before she became the House of Chanel™.

Chanel is played with perfection by the enchanting Tautou, who puts her pretty pout to work. She plays the designer with a taciturn grace that flourishes beyond the otherwise flat pace at which her life story unfolds onscreen. What impresses is the look of the movie - each set, costume and foggy French landscape is like something out of a dream. Tautou looks ravishing in her plain dresses, jodhpurs and silk pyjamas, wearing them with an easy confidence that depicts a woman well ahead of her time. She might just shake off that Amélie tag eventually, but hopefully everyone's already forgotten she was in The Da Vinci Code.

It's not particularly enjoyable or forthcoming about who Chanel really was - what inspired or motivated her - and sort of lumbers along at its own pace, making Coco Avant Chanel the movie version of French hors d'oeuvres – really pretty to look at but they'll ultimately leave you unsatisfied.

The name is synonymous with elegance and prestige, but who was the woman behind the famous brand?

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