Ever since Amélie became my magical realism fix for the decade, Audrey Tautou has cast a spell on me. (One of my friends even named her daughter Amelie in homage...) So when I first caught the trailer for Coco Before Chanel, starring none other than Mlle Tautou, I was in for a view.
Director Anne Fontaine's 2009 vision of La Coco Chanel, an orphan girl turned fashion legend and icon, provides an expansive view of chateau-expanses and Tautou's doe-eyes. While the film limns the edges of Coco's development as a young designer of new hemlines and endless re-inventor of personal storylines, the film leaves the viewer wanting more. What about her quirks, her strengths, and her long-lasting influence as a trendsetter and thoroughly Modern Woman? Not everyone goes from seamstress to world renowned designer in a lifetime. So what made Coco so influential, garnering the attention not only of wealthy men, but the patronage of the elite women who supported her ascent? Coco Before Chanel doesn't answer these questions, although it does provide teasing hints of man-tailored suits, riding gear and the flapper look, along with some exquisite close-ups of Audrey Tautou gazing, pouting, smoking cigarettes.
Coco's early intrigues with rich boys Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde) and Arthur "Boy" Chapel (Alessandro Nivola) do visually amuse, especially a batter-the-ribcage backseat sex scene between Tatou and Nivola, an American actor who speaks French remarkably well. (He apparently learned it for the film...) Her relationship with her sister Adrienne Chanel (Marie Billain), who took up with a Baron, and the actress Emilienne d'Alencon (Emmanuelle Devos) provide some clues to her access to a cadre of wealthy women, but the spark of her trendsetting influence isn't made visible enough.
Coco Chanel was known for self-assured quips: "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" and "simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance." While her witty verbal acumen is alluded to in the film, the onscreen banter doesn't quite deliver the "ah-ha" sighting of an Original. The evolution of a maverick who created a look so singular, so definitive, so deceptively simple it continues to influence designers today, could have been explored more fully. What made Coco's senses wake up? What made her want to transcend the role of mistress to the wealthy to become a bona fide businesswoman at a time when finding a rich man could have been enough? And, even though Chanel was the first designer to create perfume bearing her name, no reference is made to the origin of this then-breakthrough idea...So where did Chanel #5 come from?
Another film will have to reveal these tantalizing details. For a personality so dominant in fashion, whose suits remain a staple of many wardrobes, vintage or otherwise, many more bio-pics may be required to adequately reflect on Coco Bonheur Chanel. Until then, Coco Before Chanel provides some essential scintillating pearls, but not the entire strand.
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