My life is the story – often the tragedy – of a woman on her own, her miseries, her grandeur, her uneven and fascinating struggle against herself, against men, attractions, weaknesses, and dangers that arise from all sides.
Coco Avant Chanel premiered in France earlier this year and now the eagerly anticipated Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel biopic is hitting stateside this Fall. In English speaking countries, the film is dubbed Coco Before Chanel, and like the title indicates, the feature focuses on the formative years that made Coco Chanel the fashion icon that she is today.
The movie opens up with Gabrielle Chanel being dropped off at an orphanage by her father – a glimpse into the sadness and betrayal that she felt from a very early age. Rather than knocking her down, young Gabrielle knew that the world had much to offer, and her resilience and cleverness made her successful, though the road to success was paved with obstacles.
I have always found Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel inspiring. Fashion influence aside, I am most impressed with what she was able to achieve in the time period that she lived. She was born in 1883, during the Belle Époque when corsets and show-piece hats ruled the day. Your family determined your wealthy, social status and whom you could marry. While men could make some efforts to advance through work, at this time, women of status didn’t work. So what’s a girl to do? Chanel did not let her poverty get in her way. Her fierce determination and ambition is what got her ahead – in a time when it was unheard of for women to do so – is what I find most inspiring about Mademoiselle Chanel.
Anne Fontaine, the director of the film, does an excellent job of showing us that it was not an easy road to success. By focusing on her early life and rise to fame, Fontaine helps us understand the woman behind the myth. I think that the director herself is a woman helped bring a sensibility to the portrayal of Chanel’s life that I don’t think a man would have been able to grasp. She elaborates, “It was not so much the fashion as the characteristics of this exceptional woman that interested me. I had been particularly touched by the fact that she was a self-made person.”
Audrey Tautou plays Coco Chanel and I can’t think of anyone that would do the character more justice. A French woman herself, Tautou transforms into Gabrielle Chanel and the resemblance is remarkable. She breathes life into the designer at once being fragile and robust, vulnerable and determined.
And the costuming! Coco Before Chanel was produced with Maison Chanel’s blessing and the company opened up its archives, the Chanel Conservatory, so that actual original pieces could be used in the final catwalk scene (that was filmed on the actual famous mirrored staircase). In fact, she met with Karl Lagerfeld to go over sketches. Regarding her experience designing the costumes for Coco Before Chanel, Catherine Letterier explained:
Chanel’s [style] is instantly recognizable. What Karl Lagerfeld did in adapting the Chanel style to the future, I did backwards towards the past. I went back in time, designing the first models that Chanel might have created and which could have fashioned her style. The Chanel style is distinctive in its cut, the supple hang of its fabric and the perfect simplicity of its finish. The costumes designed for the film had to be up to the exacting standards of haute couture.
Since Chanel started her career in fashion as a milliner, they brought on the best hat makers alive today – Stephen Jones and Pippa Cleator. Coco Before Chanel definitely does not disappoint in bringing the spectacle of fashion in all of it’s glory from the extravagant gaudiness of the Belle Époque to the simplicity of French sailor shirts.
Though the fashion in the film is spot on, a lesson in fashion history it is not. Letterier definitely took artistic license to the extent that the film showed certain looks and pieces well before they actually became part of the Chanel repertoire. For examples, Chanel didn’t focus in on black as a main theme until after the death of Boy Capel in 1919. Before then, black was predominantly worn for mourning. When she invented “the little black” dress she was rumored to have said “I’m going to put the whole world in mourning for him.” (Chanel: A Woman of Her Own, Axel Madsen) Little did she know she was starting a trend that still hold weight today.
The men’s French sailor shirt that she appropriates doesn’t actually happen until the 1930s. The film ends with a fashion show that is essentially a “best of” collection of a lifetime of work. The tweed box suits that figure so prominently didn’t actually come into existence (in that form/style/silhouette) until Chanel’s comeback collection in 1954. However, the artistic license in not conforming to a strict fashion historical time line enhances the story. Though not historically accurate, it’s a testament to the longevity of Mlle. Chanel’s career – spanning decades and trends – as if we are watching her entire career pass us by. The final catwalk scene exemplifies the impact of Coco Chanel, and is so timeless and classic, it looks just as chic today as it did sixty-plus years ago.
There have been several films that have come before such as Chanel Solitaire and Coco Chanel, the Lifetime made-for-television movie – all of which interestingly focus on Chanel’s early life and rise to fame. However, none come close to capturing the true essence of Mademoiselle Chanel the way Coco Before Chanel has. The rare combination of an artistic screenplay, sensitive director and selfless actress have made Coco Before Chanel an excellent film. I will watch this repeatedly because in some way, it will be closest I can ever come to knowing Gabrielle Chanel. Bring plenty of tissues – the story is inspiring but if I said I didn’t shed a tear I’d be lying. The only downside to the film? As a former smoker, watching Coco Before Chanel made me want to run out and smoke cigarettes as elegantly as only Coco Chanel could.
Coco Before Chanel premiers in NY an LA on September 25, 2009, and in the Bay Area on October 2, 2009.
Interview with Audrey Tautou:
Coco Before Chanel – Exclusive Audrey Tautou Interview – Click here for another funny movie.