People from good homes will be talking this year of fashion. Designers and label names will be spoken of without restraint; in fact, one familiar name of world couture will be a regular topic. That name is Coco Chanel. Oh, most of us know the name is synonymous with high fashion, but do we really know Chanel? Film director Anne Fontaine provides our label-conscious minds some answers by obstinately resisting to offer a glamorized portrait about one of the world’s most beloved designers.
Rather, just like Chanel’s now-famous fashions, the French film, Coco Befor Chanel, flourishes on simplicity without embellishment. A peculiar, light account of Chanel’s early years, Fontaine’s film follows Chanel’s rise from obscure beginnings to the respectable heights of the fashion world.
Gabrielle Chanel spent her formative years in a French orphanage after her emotionless father abandoned her. As she developed into a woman, Chanel worked diligently in a provincial bar as a seamstress for the performers and as a singer. She earned the nickname “Coco” from a song she sang nightly with her sister. Coco isn’t willing to settle into a peasant life, and yearns for something more, but without losing her dignity. So, despite the fact that Chanel lacked the breeding of the upper class, she reluctantly insinuated herself into the company of a wealthy aristocrat, Etienne Balsan. Initially she finds him repulsive, but learns to be accepting of his advances, only to discover that he must leave her. A young determined Coco seeks him out, and begins a lengthy liaison with him, giving her direct entrée into French society. Coco acquired the habits and tastes of the wealthy but found grand displeasure for women’s styles, mainly hats. Using her long acquired sewing skills, her styles become increasingly popular, earning the respect of actress Emilienne d’Alencon, but she still feels fettered to the male chauvinist-fueled tenets of French society. Unhappy in her progress, Chanel filled her off-hours during the 1920s with Arthur “Boy” Capel, a wealthy English polo player who worked closely with Balsan. Capel, who loved but couldn’t commit to Chanel, believed in her abilities and provided numerous opportunities for her to grow.
Fontaine exhibits patient handling of what could be construed as a faint story. However, her careful eye peers through the glossy surface of an over-exaggerated society to give her audience a view of common class misery and tribulation, for Chanel’s success did not come easily. In terms of mood and tone, she masterly blends Chanel’s unsatisfied hunger for a comfortable, balanced environment with her creative repulsion towards unnecessary frivolous high-society decorum. But where Fontaine’s filmic abilities best succeed is in her subtle amplification of the minor details. At once we see a scene jump to the simplistic dress of the orphanage nuns, which then cuts to Chanel cutting and shaping her early designs. Furthermore, watching Audrey Tautou’s (Amelie) compelling portrayal of Chanel is stark yet stunning. Fierce determinism crosses Tautou’s face as she sets to work on a new design or sparks a fashion trend with her “little boy” look. Indeed, the slightest nuances of Chanel’s personality crackle with life, for Tautou’s acting and Fontaine’s camera work together in a beautiful partnership. From the longing looks Tautou gives working fishermen, to the sheer look of distaste for the fluff adorning the heads of French woman of high society an audience can be captivated by Tautou’s interpretation of a fashion innovator.
Chanel dominated the Paris fashion world in the nineteen-twenties; her designs helped set the fashion tone for the 20th century. She might have been divinely simplistic in her womanhood, yet her resolute position never succumbed to the bourgeoisie frills attached to femininity. Chanel revolutionized fashion without surrendering her independence and of course, made her fortunes.
It must be said that beyond the comfortable telling of Chanel’s early life ventures lies a couched irony director Fontaine infuses into this delicate, yet astonishing film. As Chanel earned her rightful place in the fashion world of the early 20th century, society women found her fashions liberating, redefining their security and position in a once male-dominated world. However, that historic transformation has been shunned in modern times in favor of a price tag and a label. Consequently, Fontaine’s underlying message in Chanel is that a label doesn’t define you, but rather, your convictions.