Coco avant Chanel
Anne Fontaine :: France :: 2009 :: 1h50
The young Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (Audrey Tautou) and her sister were left to an orphanage by her father. Every Saturday, she would wait to see if he came back for her, which he never did. Her mother had died of tuberculosis, and the nuns at the orphanage did what they could to prepare her for life – teaching her to become a couturier. When she leaves the orphanage, she becomes a cabaret singer which introduces her to the wealthy playboy Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde). Attracted by the unconventional, independent young Chanel, he supports her as a milliner for his aristocratic friends. With time, she develops her style for both the hats, and clothes. By the time she meets and falls in love with Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola), he can help her set up her first couture house.
Filming the life of a real person is far from obvious, even if they have led a relatively interesting life, as Ms Chanel has. Real life is not dramatized, does not have “good” and “bad” characters, remarkable cinematographic moments or literary turning points. Real life, even such remarkable ones as Ms Chanel’s, progress slowly, where people build on each other, through love and friendship. You can come out of the cinema feeling that you have watched very little going on, even though you saw a young orphan reinvent herself to become one of the leading figures of her times. This is because the film is subtle. Subtle, although there is a clear love story with Coco falling for, her ideal match, the seducer “Boy”.
The focus on the imbalance in a love story, is a recurring theme with the director Anne Fontaine. From the somewhat weak Entre ses Mains (2005) and La Fille de Monaco (2008) to the captivating Nathalie… (2004), they all have the common theme of an innocent victim and the experienced seducer (a dark Benoît Poelvoorde in the first, the young bubbly Louise Bourgoin in the second and a desire incarnate Emmanuelle Béart in the last). Audrey Tautou is clearly the victim of love here, a love she did not initially want, after having been seduced by “Boy”. This is a curious approach, as both of the relationships we are shown in Coco avant Chanel are ones which serve her well. It is through her love stories that she gains her independence and can build her fashion empire – for such a determined young woman this can surely not have been mere coincidence.
I must say that despite the movie, what I mostly loved was the end image – Coco sitting on the staircase after the models had paraded by, wearing her creations in her own fashion show. She stares out before her, with a -strange for her- feeling of belonging. She is changing the lives of those around her, by dressing them, while changing her own destiny. She has become independent, her own person, someone she can be proud of. Of course it is an easy sentimental image, but it is also justified. You have every reason to be proud of her, as she does to be proud of herself. No longer the little girl waiting passively, but she’s become the creator of Chanel looking on.