Many may mythologize the powerhouse figure behind the Chanel brand, yet, the 2009 film Coco Before Chanel brings an iconic designer, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel into the public arena, as a real person bounding with human vulnerabilities and high aspirations. Directed and co-written by Anne Fontaine, the film thrusts Coco Chanel, played by Audrey Tautou, amidst social divisions of high French society.
Tautou’s artful performance conveys Coco’s resilience, both through her snarky comments and cynical attitude about love. Her unmasked independence and unwillingness to cater to wealthy uniformed men hits the right comedic tone. The bantering, and absence of male pandering, sets the foundation for a delicate and complicated relationship between Coco and with the wealthy older gentleman, Étienne Balsan, played by Benoît Poelvoorde.
Yet, Coco carves her own niche amongst the wealthy through illicit relationships that sustain the most dynamic and fluctuating aspects of the film. Fontaine wastes little time in dwelling on Coco’s early memories of the orphanage. A looming grey building, the detachment of the nuns and Coco’s coarse wool cape and ragged doll form the few images we have of Coco’s dismal childhood.
Melodic piano music introduces the dark-haired, solemn faced girl – affording the audience a glimpse at Coco’s sense of displacement and transience. Fontaine, though, foregoes psychologizing Coco’s orphan life, the disappointment of a daughter waiting anxiously for a father’s return, with this abbreviated glimpse at her poverty and disadvantage.
Skipping to 15 years later to Moulin, from orphaned child to spirited singer, Coco and Adrienne form a comedic duo singing and entertaining in cabaret.
Fontaine deliberately introduces the audience to Coco’s night job over her blander day job as a seamstress, the effect of which emphasizes the desperation with which Coco performs out of financial necessity, rather than out of frivolous self-indulgence and vanity.
Comical scenes where you see Coco’s unruly and impulsive character – boldly showing up at Étienne’s country estate uninvited and crashing his parties with his wealthy friends – introduce a Coco that knows no social bounds and will vie for attention.
The cinematography also heightens the contrast between Coco and the women around her: out of a sea of white dresses and white headgear, she stands out as the only woman donning a black drapey dress, in essence, asserting her fashion independence.
Tautou’s line and their execution, mocking the women adorned in silverware and suffocating in skin tight outfits, provokes smiles and chuckles from me. Even her new beau, the English businessman, Boy Capel laughs in complicity.
Scenes of silence and hollow glassy-eyed stares strike with as much dramatic force and emotion as her pain-stricken words. She resists easy wealth and marriage with Étienne, and instead, vies for a path of lone independence.
Fontaine crafts a beautiful film that abandons a mere retelling of an autobiography for an aestheticized remaking that foregrounds Coco’s tragic realities and social circumstances. Only with a stillness of heart does Tautou beautifully imprint this lasting image of Coco at her height of success and attained maturity, in an iconic structured white blazer and skirt.
The New York Times calls the film “a costume drama worthy of the name”, and I happily concede that the cinematographic beauty fully calls into fruition the comingling of challenges, subversions and triumphs of one legendary designer.