From T.S. Eliot to Picasso to Le Corbusier, writers, artists and architects are often celebrated as proponents of modernism, but more rarely fashion designers. How fitting, then to see the French fashion designer Coco Chanel be given her due as one of the most celebrated visionaries of the 20th century in Anne Fontaine's Coco Before Chanel.
As Coco Chanel, Audrey Tautou shows her abilities as an actress to blend steely resolve and a kind of wounded animal vulnerability. Tautou is certainly up to the complicated task of portraying this orphan-turned-fashion designer and brand name who introduced the corseted, constrained Belle Epoque woman to the liberated vestments of separates, pants, and the girdle-free silhouette.
From our own 21st century vantage, Coco Chanel has become synonymous with wealth. She swaths the ladies who lunch in those iconic tweed suits. Draped in pearls, her delicate hand gripping a cigarette, photos of the designer suggest the confidence of a born aristocrat. It is therefore a bit of a shock to see Chanel portrayed the way she is in Fontaine's film.
Deposited by her destitute father at a French orphanage in 1893 with her sister Adrienne (Marie Gallain), Coco — née Gabrielle — grew up uncomfortably aware of her station in life, first in the orphanage and then as a seamstress who moonlighted as a singer. Fontaine tells her tale of Chanel's rise from orphan to couturier, ever-mindful of the bitterly unfair and inflexible class system of 19th century France.
Desperate to escape her limited life in the suburb of Moulins, Chanel flees for the home of wealthy barroom lay-about Etienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), who turns out to have a chateau on the outskirts of Paris where he plays host to an entourage of debauched party people. Balsan keeps Chanel as a kind of in-house concubine to be used and then discarded as he sees fit.
When love arrives, even it comes with the taint of deception and exploitation. While under Balsan's roof, Chanel falls for sensitive, swoony Englishman Arthur "Boy" Capel, a business associate of Balsan's, played by a sadly lackluster Alessandro Nivola, who is constantly upstaged by his moustache. Capel pays Chanel the ultimate compliment of seeing her feminine charms and her style as one and the same. "You're elegant," he tells her, and she falls hard. But social station is inescapable in Chanel's dealings with Capel too.
With her gamine figure and sparkling, searching velvet eyes, there is something wary and cunning about Tautou. She has the scrappiness of a small animal determined to claw its way out of a trap. Chanel does everything she can to stay on in Balsan's charmed atmosphere of wealth. What that entails is a kind of depressing sexual servitude with her meals served in the kitchen and her body summoned when Balsan is ready for her. But Fontaine also suggests that life for an ambitious, impoverished woman of the era was complex: Balsan also provided Chanel the opportunity to observe the customs of the wealthy and to move farther away from her sad past.
There is a tragic desperation in Tautou's portrait of Chanel as a woman of shining ambition who sees all too clearly the invisible wall separating her life from that of Balsan and his wealthy friends. Aware that she will never be suited to the life of a courtesan dressed in ribbons and frills, she becomes a kind of mascot and outcast, a bohemian artist amidst the aristocracy. She adopts mannish trousers, small hats, and simple dresses free of frou frou and constrictive undergarments to express her unfettered nature. She charms with her saucy personality and further ingratiates with her sewing talent, fashioning stylish hats for a cadre of actresses and wives. Fontaine makes the point that clothes are not merely self-decoration, but were, in Chanel's hands, a political and social statement. For Chanel, they represented a break from a feminine ideal defined by passivity. Layers of lace and enormous hats and piles of jewels essentially rendered women immobile, and the simple act of putting on trousers to ride a horse symbolized a dramatic refusal to put beauty before living. Equality with men was unimaginable, but at least Chanel's designs suggested women could be less restricted.
Coco Before Chanel ends with a parade of models wearing Chanel couture passing by a Lady from Shanghai bank of mirrors, alluding to Coco Chanel's own hall of mirrors mystique. If we thought we might have an inkling of her personality in Coco Before Chanel, by film's end she has descended into sphinx mode — she is now a sleek, polished self-invention. It's part of the joy and deception of fashion shared by designers and their customers: you get to reinvent yourself every day. At the heart of so many fashion pics, including recent documentaries like Lagerfeld Confidential and Valentino: The Last Emperor, is the assertion that finding out what lies beneath the fashion surface can be a fool's errand.
In the end, Coco Before Chanel's woman-before-the-mogul biography is more respectable than rousing, an enlightening but hardly ground-moving tribute to a fashion modernist.