Monday, December 5, 2011

Creating a Fashion Icon: Coco Before Chanel

I only recently heard about the 2009 film Coco Before Chanel and decided to check it out, not least of all because it stars Amelie’s Audrey Tatou. This biopic of the famous fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel looks at her early life, as perhaps implied by the title. It focuses mainly on the years in which she is the mistress first of Etienne Balsan and later Arthur “Boy” Capel, brushing over her childhood years in an orphanage and dedicating only a montage to the many, many years of her successful career. If there was one thing I did not like very much about the movie, it was that we saw so little of her actual success. However, as I already mentioned, the title of the movie should provide a clue that the movie is more about her life before coming a household name.

Due to the movie’s focus on Chanel’s years as a “kept woman,” another downside was the men’s treatment of Coco, particularly in a cringe-worthy scene in which Capel asks and receives permission to “borrow” Chanel from Balsan for a couple of days. There’s probably an element of truth-telling at work here (particularly keeping in mind the time period), but it doesn’t stop the feminist ire that boils up in me at the treatment of women as property – or worse than property, as most people aren’t willing to lend out their homes for a weekend with no questions asked. Still, throughout all this, we see Chanel becoming the person she will be. She chafes at having to ride sidesaddle, refuses to wear a corset at the sacrifice of comfort, and mocks the elaborate ornamentation on the pretentious women she sees around her.

Before seeing this movie, my entire knowledge of Chanel’s life was based on a slim picture book for children. Like with any biopic, it’s unclear how much is 100 percent true and how much is poetic license. For instance, some quick web searches tell me that Chanel had two brothers and two sisters, rather than only the one sister who is featured in the film (who, by the way, is named Adrienne – which was not the name of either of Chanel’s actual sisters). Interestingly, the movie created as many questions as it answered about Coco, including the origin of her unique nickname. In part, we are left puzzled by what’s actual true because Coco is constantly changing the story she tells – which is apparently something the real-life Chanel was known to do.

The movie also portrays Coco as witty and sarcastic, again characteristics of the actual woman. This captivating side of Coco is portrayed by the winsome Audrey Tatou who is always a delightful actor to see at work, and she even looks a bit like Chanel as an added bonus. (Tatou is also currently a spokesperson for Chanel perfumes.) All of the other players do fine jobs in their roles as well.

In addition, Coco Before Chanel is a movie well-aware of the visual aspect of the medium and contains many stunning shots. Cinematically speaking, there is never a dull moment, whether we are looking at a lush French chateau and estate, the simple and perpetual beauty of the sea, or the finery of fashion models descending a staircase. Overall, I’m not sure I would call Coco Before Chanel a “must-see” movie, but it certainly has its charms.

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