Coco Before Chanel
Spoiler Alert Prior to seeing this movie, I associated Coco Chanel with couture fashion and high society women with size two figures, like Audrey Hepburn and Nancy Reagan. Coco Before Chanel introduces us to the woman Chanel was before revolutionizing women’s fashion and becoming a fashion icon to the rich, famous and not so famous. This beautifully shot film humanizes Chanel and brings her to life by showing that she had insecurities, complexity, and visionary genius as a designer.
We first meet Chanel in her humble beginnings as a young girl left at a French orphanage with her sister Adrienne by their distant father. Chanel waited faithfully for him to visit the orphanage every Sunday to no avail. She and Adrienne are taught how to sew by the nuns at the orphanage, and when we meet the sisters again, they are supporting themselves as seamstresses by day and a sister song and dance act by night. After Adrienne elopes with a French nobleman, Chanel is unable to line up work as a solo act and decides to show up uninvited on the doorstep of Etienne, a wealthy and somewhat decadent Baron she had met in Paris who seems to have a sincere affection for her despite his rakish ways.
After Etienne informs her that she can only stay for a couple of days, Chanel stays on against his wishes and transforms herself into an Annie Hall-like muse by tailoring some of Etienne’s clothes to suit her waif-like figure and literally crashing (on horseback) a picnic he is hosting. Etienne finds Chanel entertaining and unique, and she ends up becoming a kind of mascot (and mistress) to him.
This movie effectively weaves Chanel’s personal metamorphosis with her evolution as a fashion visionary. In one pivotal scene, Etienne takes Chanel to the races and leaves her alone on the lawn while he sits in the more expensive box seats. As the camera pans over the crowd, we see through Chanel’s eyes, exposing the excessively ornate beading and ruffles on the women’s clothing, and realize her unique vision of how women’s clothing could look.
Coco Before Chanel is one of those films that stayed with me for days after I had seen it. Audrey Tatou’s transcendent and lifelike portrayal of Chanel is inspired, and director Anne Fontaine paints a fascinating portrait of a complex and talented woman. One may take issue with Chanel’s pragmatic approach to her relationship with Etienne, but a key piece of dialog in the movie explains the place of women in the world at that time: when Boy Capel (a love interest) asks Etienne if he can “borrow” Chanel for a couple of days, after a few thoughtful moments, Etienne assents adding, “Maybe it’s just what she needs to clear her head.”