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The 1920s remains one of my most favorite eras in fashion. It was the roaring twenties, a liberation and revolutionary movement. Women broke away from the prison of their corsets; they kicked up their heels with their legs now free of restricting hemlines. Simple, elegant silhouettes were the order of the day and the little black dress (chic, yet attainable to all social classes) was born. Modernity thundered its way through the war-worn times, and what better way to exclaim a rebellious spirit than fashion at the hands of a style maverick named Coco Chanel?
Coco Avant Chanel (“Coco Before Chanel”, in English) is a film that seems to be an attempt at explaining how this woman, this force of nature, came about. It opens, not surprisingly, at the moment when she and her sister are dropped off by her father at the nunnery. Her humble origins are given light in the eyes of a young Gabrielle, who waited for a fatherly visit that never came. She grew up ashamed of her past, but proud, easily fabricating a less severe portrait of her childhood whenever anyone cared to ask.
Audrey Tautou plays Gabrielle Chanel, giving her Coco a spin for the stubborn yet vulnerable. However, despite Miss Tautou’s talent (as proven in her other films), her character burns slow. I can’t say for sure if this is due to the screenplay (written by director Anne Fontaine with her sister Camille), but Tautou acts with the air of a veteran squeezing all the juice she could find in the material she had to work with. Yes, Coco is interesting in her ingenuity and somewhat mannish aesthetics, but more focus is given to her relationships with Etienne Balsan and Anthony “Boy” Capel, signifying that these ties had nurtured her well-known talent and drive. The moment that her sister is out of the scene and she is deeply embroiled in the presence of Balsan (played by Benoît Poelvoorde), the movie takes a turn for romantic turbulence. Balsan is an aristocrat, and while easy going, he is unwilling to make a public acquaintance out of Coco. Poelvoorde plays his role well, possibly the most dynamic character in the film. He acts according to his stature, but eventually displays a depth of emotion that surprises everyone. Meanwhile, Boy Capel as played by Alessandro Nivola is suave, confident and takes an immediate, if predictable, interest on the lonely Miss Chanel. He is too much the seducer, his role as eventual love interest too obvious from his looks and voice, even at the first moment he appears, his back turned while playing the piano. Whatever tension there is in the air, it is mostly from Chanel, and you almost wish there was more to their dalliance with Capel being the reputed love of her life.
Coco wears a self-styled riding habit and pops in unannounced at her host’s picnic.
Capel and Chanel goes dancing, while everyone stares at the classic black dress
Historically, the aforementioned men were undeniably important in the life of the fashion icon, having provided the initial means to launch the brand. However, one could hardly be blamed for wanting to see more of Chanel’s cleverness and resourcefulness. These were displayed at moments when she had loosened the strings of her sister’s dance costume and when she fashioned a riding habit out of menswear, but they were almost forgettable scenes. Yet isn’t this supposed to be what the movie is about? It doesn’t differ much from a regular romantic fare, and should it be judged thusly, it lacks climactic chemistry with misplaced glimpses of Chanel’s talent for fashion that seems almost accidental. There were several times when I was just waiting for something groundbreaking to happen.
Making a movie that captured Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s entire life might have been too much of an undertaking. The legendary fashion icon was indomitable, having made a constant habit of breaking down barriers and surviving on top of her game in a man’s world. This could have been one of the reasons why Warner Bros. opted to depict Chanel’s life before she became famous. Surely they accomplished a nice little tribute. But was this a wise move? Several critics claim that the movie leaves one to wonder if the real story of worth is to be found after Chanel. I can’t say I disagree, but it certainly made me wonder what else was there in the early life of Coco; had I watched this for the intention of learning just that, then my curiosity would have remained unabated.
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Audrey Tautou is also the face of Chanel No. 5, touted as “The World’s Most Legendary Fragrance”.