Rough road to high fashion
Coco Before Chanel
Audrey Tautou may have been born to play Coco Chanel, not only because she looks like her—her resemblance to photos of Chanel from the 1920s is almost uncanny—but also because Tautou onscreen is effortlessly sympathetic. Her big dark eyes simply pull us closer and make us want to root for her and see things her way. That’s a good thing, too, because by all accounts—including the one we get with a generous dollop of artistic license in director Anne Fontaine’s Coco Before Chanel—the woman who became the most influential couturière of the 20th century was one cool, tough cookie.
The movie opens in 1893: Little Gabrielle Chanel and her older sister, Adrienne, are dumped at an orphanage by a father who can no longer afford to support them and who doesn’t even glance back at them as his cart pulls away. “I waited for my father every Sunday,” she tells us in voice-over. “He never came back.”
Fifteen years later, Adrienne and Gabrielle have grown, respectively, into Marie Gillain and Tautou, working as seamstresses in Moulins while moonlighting at a seedy cabaret, singing an atrocious little ditty about a lost dog named Coco—the song that gives Gabrielle the nickname by which her acquaintances, and later the world, will come to know her.
While Adrienne is courted by a French baron and kidding herself that the affair will lead to marriage, Coco has no such illusions. When she meets a friend of the baron’s, millionaire playboy Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelevoorde), she is so cynical, and so little the coquette, that he can’t resist her. After Adrienne goes off with her baron to be kept in the country (but never married), Balsan arranges for Coco to audition for a theatrical impresario. It doesn’t go well; the producer dismisses her halfway through her song.
The truth is singing and dancing are not Coco’s forte. It will take her a while to learn just where her destiny lies, but at the moment, her most promising talent appears to be sleeping with Balsan. She follows him to his country estate near Compiègne, showing up unexpectedly on his doorstep. He is nonplussed but pleased, and content to put her up—in the back of the house, out of the line of sight of his high-tone guests.
Coco may not be an aristocrat by birth, but she’s a quick study, and in time she works her way into the circle of Balsan’s friends, especially the actress Emilienne (Emmanuelle Devos), who is charmed by Coco’s frankness and wit, and by her penchant for simple clothes, eschewing the corsets, frills and petticoats that are women’s lot circa 1910. Soon Coco is designing hats for Emilienne and her friends and advising them on clothing, first for party costumes, then for everyday wear.
At the same time, she meets Balsan’s friend, the Englishman Arthur Capel, nicknamed “Boy” (Alessandro Nivola), and the two begin an affair that will last nearly 10 years, through his marriage to an English heiress until his death in an auto accident in 1919. In the movie, Boy gives Coco the money to open her first dress shop (in real life it was more complicated, but that’s close enough for a biopic), and she’s on her way to becoming Coco Chanel.
Coco Before Chanel was written by Anne Fontaine and her sister Camille (“with the collaboration of Christopher Hampton and Jacques Fieschi,” whatever that means, exactly) and “freely adapted” from L’Irrégulière by Edmonde Charles-Roux. Freely indeed. The Fontaines supply Coco with a sibling who never existed while ignoring the five who did, and they make no mention of World War I, an event that is rumored to have had a major effect even on the cloistered world of French fashion. They repeat the fictions Coco invented later in life to burnish her origins. And by ending in 1919, the movie avoids bringing up World War II and that unfortunate sleeping-with-the-Nazi-spy business. Fontaine steadfastly honors the image of Chanel as a proto-feminist making her own way in the world, glossing over the fact that she did it by sleeping with rich and powerful men.
Coco Chanel may have been an opportunist and a bit of a cold fish, but her clothes still look stylish and photograph like a million bucks. As for the cold fish part—well, that’s why we have Audrey Tautou.