Coco Chanel catapulted to the forefront of the fashion world at the age of 40, breaking into an industry primarily inhabited by men with her simple, elegant designs. But this biopic is not about fashion or men. Instead, it’s about a woman with high-society aspirations steadily clawing her way to the top.
“Coco Before Chanel”
At the Michigan
Sony Pictures Classics
“Coco Before Chanel” traces Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s humble journey from orphan to showgirl to mistress to hatmaker. She becomes the lover of two men and the wife of none. She never had a dream of being a fashion designer, and the movie doesn’t pretend otherwise. Not until the last few frames of the film is her vast empire of clothing, bags and fragrances even mentioned. Instead, it features scenes from her younger years; clearly, the emphasis is on Coco before Chanel.
Playing the eponymous protagonist is Audrey Tautou (“Amelie”), gamine and aloof all at once. Tautou is truly Audrey Hepburn reincarnated, evoking an untouchable elegance even while dressed in whoreish corsets and garish frills. But where Tautou excels is in the exploration of Chanel’s ambition, her unquenchable desire to be fabulous and rich and her willingness to do anything to get to the top. Chanel is not always a likable person, or an admirable person, yet Tautou is able to temper Chanel’s unstoppable determination with her own doe-eyed innocence.
“Coco Before Chanel” is all about female empowerment, yet it doesn’t go the predictable route of chronicling Chanel forging her way through a male-dominated industry. Instead, she attains liberation through independence from love. The film’s key conflict lies in Chanel resolving whether she wants to attain status through hard work or remain a mistress in a loving, yet stifling relationship. In this sense, Chanel’s story becomes more relatable to a female audience, calling heed to the age-old question of whether women should put careers over lovers.
As with any fashion-centric film, the clothes (designed by Catherine Leterrier) are striking, but not striking in the traditional “Chanel” way. The movie is more focused on creating a contrast between Chanel’s fondness for simplicity and the flamboyant trends of the time, rather than her amazing design skills in the future. As a result, modest-yet-chic outfits dominate the screen. The only sort of creativity manifested takes the form of Chanel’s penchant for cutting apart men’s outfits to create a jaunty sort of menswear, a far cry from the trademark clean-cut jackets and little black dresses that Chanel’s empire is famous for.
Those who come into the film solely for the renowned Chanel designs, though, will be left waiting until the end. The finale features Chanel’s first fashion show, displaying models in a stream of dresses cascading down the stairs. For the first time, Chanel’s personality and personal life have fused into a palette of fabrics and colors, all still containing her trademark elegance and simplicity. It’s as if the movie is trying to say that true fashion is ultimately reached with a complete awareness of yourself. Only until Chanel has liberated herself from marriage expectations and her societal aspirations can she produce something brilliant.
“Coco Before Chanel” probably won’t be the fashion confection audiences might expect, but it’s a nice alternative for those who find period films too stuffy or slow. More character sketch than period love story, “Chanel” is a film that marches decisively past biopic conventions to explore the fascinating woman behind the brand – absent fashion, absent men.