By SAÏDEH PAKRAVAN
I’m not sure the great French designer Coco Chanel would have been happy with the film describing her early years. Flattered? Maybe. Moved? To a certain extent. Happy? Probably not. She was a famously acerbic, unsentimental individual and the increasing disneyfication of France or, here, rewriting a cute, pretty past instead of describing a reality would not have done it for her. Also, she was defined by movement and she herself defined it by the fluid, easy-to-wear fashion she created, so one can assume she would have found the film by Anne Fontaine a respectful homage but indeed static and soulless.
“Coco avant Chanel” is spectacular in its scenery and the dutiful recreation of every detail of turn-of-the-century (the nineteenth) France until World War I but ultimately reminds one of the academic paintings that were upended with the Impressionists and their disregard for everything that had been approved of until they appeared on the art scene. In the same revolutionary vein, Chanel liberated women from the constraints of ridiculously complicated clothes using dozens of yards of fabric to be worn over corsets so tight that they caused frequent fainting (hence the always present bottle of salts), with elaborate hats that bore everything from ostrich feathers to large bejeweled ornaments.
Born in 1883, Gabrielle Chanel, later known as Coco, did not have an easy start. After losing her mother at a young age, she was sent by her father to an orphanage. She later made a living learning the rudiments of sewing by day and at night singing in a typical beuglant, a smoke-filled café with a rather loud masculine clientele, not the finest. There she met a rich horse-breeder and, moving into his chateau, started making her mark by designing hats for his girlfriends.
An English businessman who may have been the great or the only love of her life sponsored her more serious efforts at making a living with her talent and her eye for what makes women look good. He died in a car crash, leaving her desolate. More than ever dedicated to fashion, she went on to an iconic career, creating instant classics still with us today such as the little black dress and the Chanel suit, always recognizable even in its Lagerfeld avatars. Dying in 1971, she also left not a few aphorisms. One went, “If you’re fashionable, you can go out of fashion. Style is what a woman should have. That never goes away.” She knew style, no question about that.
In “Coco Before Chanel,” there are tantalizing moments that tell us what could have been. When Coco, played by Audrey Tautou, ponders over a new piece of fabric and grabs her scissors or looks disdainfully at the clothes paraded by the women of the time at the races or in a fashionable restaurant, you think “genius at work.” And you know what kind of revolution she is preparing for the world of fashion. But apart from these rare moments, the Americanization of a very French story are more than irritating. During one of her grand shows that she watches, as the actual Chanel used to, sitting on the stairs of her famous Rue Cambon fashion house, she reminisces about her dead lover? Possible? Sure. Probable? Not really.
The charming Audrey Tautou is too charming for the role. To most cinema goers, she is forever branded as Amélie Poulain, a sad state of affairs that “Dirty Pretty Things” or “Such a Long Engagement” can’t change. Playing Chanel required an inner tension that she can’t provide. One wonders what one of the greater French actresses such as Charlotte Gainsbourg or Juliette Binoche would have done with the part. Ah well. “Coco before Chanel” is a solid period piece and fun to watch.
With: Audrey Tautou, Emmanuelle Devos. Directed by: Anne Fontaine.