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Fraught Couture

Biopic explores the humble beginnings of one of fashion's most recognizable names


Audrey Tautou assembles the elements of style as the pre-fame Coco Chanel.

By Wendy Ward | Posted 11/4/2009

There's a moment at the end of Coco Before Chanel that's so unnecessary it's as if from another movie: a montage of earlier scenes that you have just watched, in a way, with Coco. Did director Anne Fontaine think you had forgotten what Coco went through before the last scene's fashion show of iconic wool suits, extraordinary long gowns, and gorgeous gold chains--or that Coco herself would have forgotten? C'est impossible.

This late montage is Fontaine's only misstep in this biopic, written by Fontaine and Camille Fontaine (no relation) from Edmonde Charles-Roux's book of the same title. It's a gorgeous movie layered with orchestral music and punctuated by lively French songs and enough picturesque shots to fill a year's worth of French fashion magazines. The strong narrative is one that even the beauty of Audrey Tautou merely enhances, it's such a classic success story.

Born Gabrielle Chanel in 1883 and orphaned at an age when memories of abandonment never dissolve, Chanel and her sister Adrienne (Marie Gillain) live and work in Moulins in Central France as seamstresses during the day and cabaret singers at night. The song they perform, "Coco," gives Gabrielle her nickname, and clientele with money and connections give the sisters a way out of poverty. While Adrienne falls in love with a customer, Coco begins a lifelong relationship with millionaire Étienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde). Sex may have been the way to keep Balsan interested, but it's Coco's outspoken dismissal of his original advances that compel him to stop at the dress shop where she works to say goodbye.

He's bound for his estate, Alcazar. Adrienne has moved in with her boyfriend in the country nearby, and Coco follows the both of them. Balsan gives her two days, she stays for years. Ambitious and modern in sensibility, taste, and independence, Coco will not be denied. Although the humiliation she endures from this man is hard to watch, she finds a strength in her submission--he forces her to sing "Coco" to a room full of raucous party guests that know every word, and she doesn't move a muscle beyond her lips.

She is introduced to frivolous and stupid rich folk who drink champagne--that's all anyone drinks--although she does befriend the actress (and sometimes Balsan lover) Emilenne d'Alençon (Emmanuelle Devos), a Parisienne who begins to wear Coco's simply designed straw hats. Coco's style changes in the countryside as her time and interests are no longer dependant on making a living: she shuns corsets as uncomfortable and allows her breasts freedom; she dons men's jodhpurs and straddles horses rather than ride feminine sidesaddle; she tailors a plaid dress with pieces from a men's tuxedo shirt after rejecting a silk dress with rosettes gifted by Balsan.

Growing into her own, she also gains confidence. Originally sequestered upstairs as a plaything, Coco makes her way in Balsan's society and stands out not just in her trousers, but in her forward-thinking intelligence and creativity. English businessman Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola), a Balsan colleague, takes her away on a seaside holiday--a sequence that offers more than one stunning shot of Coco while the world spins around her. She returns to Balsan in love with Capel and wearing a fisherman's blue canvas pullover and traditional white and navy striped cotton shirt with wide collar.

Coco's ambition was as strong as her contention that women should be comfortable in their clothing--not restricted by it--and that there's a sexy elegance in simplicity. Her heart is nearly broken by cultural restrictions and financial decisions, but she accepts them as the inevitable results of falling in love with a man of high class, eventually deciding to open a hat shop in Deauville, beginning a career in fashion design for the new, independent woman of the 20th century. In the movie, Coco displays a wonderful focus whenever she touches fabric, drawing on it with chalk and slicing through it with sharp scissors; although Coco is about the life before sewing chains in the bottom of her famous wool jackets to weight them down, Chanel was always an absolutely original.

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