The world of high fashion, especially women’s fashion, is across the galaxy from the world I inhabit. A glance at my standard attire will pro- vide proof enough of that. But even a Dockers dude such as I can appreciate the fine little French bioflick “Coco Before Chanel,” which tells the quite literally rags-to-riches tale of Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971).
Chanel was born in a poorhouse in the small town of Saumur, France, one of six kids in the family of a traveling salesman who never bothered to marry their mother. When the mother died, 12-year-old Coco was sent to a Catholic orphanage, where she was trained as a seamstress. At age 18, she left the monastery school and started working for a tailor shop in town. There she met a man who would change her life: the very rich Etienne Balsan. Balsan – what? adopted her? – as his mistress, giving her access to the wealthy set, and she started designing hats for some of the tony ladies in his social circle.
During this period, Chanel met Balsan’s friend, Arthur “Boy” Capel, and they fell in love. Capel later provided her with the funding necessary to open a shop in 1913 (actually, a second shop, the first having failed), and she was able to start building a fashion industry empire. This empire flourished between the two world wars, and, after she voluntarily closed her shops during World War II, flourished again after the war.
And quite a business it was. She was the first to sell women’s sportswear and the first to come out with a line of per- fumes to augment her line of clothes. She was the only figure from the fashion industry to make Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Not bad for a woman born poor and illegitimate, and raised in a small-town orphanage.
The movie focuses on Chanel’s life before World War I, the years in which she struggled to find some self-identity. She is exceedingly well portrayed by the always charming Audrey Tautou, who, interestingly, is now the official spokes- person for the Chanel Corporation. Tautou, who usually plays upbeat, gorgeous characters, portrays the darker side of Chanel’s ambition and drive. There is a hint of bisexuality or masculinity as welL The person we see has wit and appeal, but also a tendency to speak bluntly. This is all the more remarkable, considering that the turn of the 20th century was a time when women were not expected to be ambitious, outspoken, or self-directed.
The supporting cast is outstanding. Especially notable is Benoit Poelvoorde, whose Etienne Balsan is charmingly overwhelmed when his new conquest conquers him. Alessandro Nivola is also good as Boy, Chanel’s great early love.
The cinematography is first rate. The film is shot mainly in the French countryside, and it is beautifully depicted. More subtly, the film conveys Chanel’s early eye for clothing patterns and fabrics, and her unusual idea of style. For example, in one scene, we see her join a party at Balsan’s estate, where she is wearing an outfit with a slightly masculine look, of her own design. In another, she helps improve a woman’s dress by removing the inner corset, wryly observing that corsets were designed by men.
This movie is well worth the while, even for people with little interest in fashion. It shows the triumph of talent and energy over circumstance, which is always a satisfying story.