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Reeling: Coco avant Chanel

October 5, 2009


Scene from Coco avant Chanel starring Audrey Tautou as Coco Chanel

Other than a glowingly sincere review from the usually reserved New York Times, I purposely didn’t have much to go off before seeing the Coco Chanel biopic, Coco Avant Chanel. So I was prepared for the fact that it wasn’t going to be a chaotic cameo of clothing—i.e. not a fashion movie—but more the documentation of a crucial segment of the revolutionary French designer’s life.’

The one word I can think of to describe this film is humble. It’s a tender look at the life of one free-spirited, determined woman, played by the incredible Audrey Tautou. Throughout the movie there are only stylized snatches of tweed, stripes and pearls—reverential foreshadowing of the DNA of the world’s most coveted brand. Instead of boorish and romanticizing PR, director Anne Fontaine tells the story of the woman behind success. Unlike the at-times flashy fashion house (helmed by brilliant eccentric Karl Lagerfeld) that it is today, the Chanel that Coco builds is simple: it is premised on the idea of undoing the overdone woman.

Coco doesn’t just resist the man-friendly status quo of her day through fashion (she maintains that women are dressing for men, and not for themselves): her daily life is charmingly unruly. She refuses to wear a corset, preferring to breathe freely, or don over-embellished hats, preferring the natural attraction of bright eyes and full lips. Rather than relying on chance to bring fortune, she forces her way into the sprawling home (and life) of her effusive and off-kilter lover Etienne Balsac (played by the show-stealing Benoît Poelvoorde). She straddles the saddle of a horse instead of sitting, simpering, to the side. And when she realizes that she’ll forever be the mistress of her second lover, and first real love, Arthur “Boy” Capel—Alessandro Nivola, who knows how to wear a moustache—she capitalizes on the romance by accepting his offer of a business loan. Because, Coco knows, it’s a man’s world.

It’s a fairly obvious, but subtly stated message because the film is all Coco. Tautou is so wonderful to watch: she’s as fervent and undone and winsome as the icon in our minds. Tautou effortlessly embodies Coco’s elegant defiance—it takes no work with her, you don’t have to extrapolate. She gets that Coco was more an individual than an insouciant, and that chain-smoking in bed or running into the Parisian streets in silk mens pajamas wasn’t a statement, but a quiet self-assuredness.

And there’s nothing I love more than a stylisticly uncomplicated film. One scene ends with an aerial shot of Coco lying alone at the roots of a big tree, surrounded by autumnal leaves in a corset-less, loosely tailored outfit, contemplating her crossroads. That shot, a beautiful wide picture of Coco arranged, still, in a sea of rusty foliage, perfectly encapsulates what this film is all about: not Coco’s creations, but Coco’s singularly remarkable life instead.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Simon permalink*
    October 6, 2009 6:02 pm

    Nice review. I wanted to see this at TIFF but tickets flew fast. Glad to hear it’s a gorgeous as the trailer teases, can’t wait to see it.

  2. Anupa permalink*
    October 7, 2009 1:51 pm

    It’s a segmented biopic through and through. I really loved the fact that it wasn’t a fashion movie. It would’ve been overkill.

  3. October 7, 2009 2:05 pm

    God I love the name Etienne.

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