First off, ‘Coco Avant Chanel’ is not the all-out ‘Fashion’ film many had thought it would be – but the clue, of course, is in the title. This is a biopic that tracks the young Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel from her modest beginnings at an orphanage right up to her setting up her first business in Paris. We don’t see much more into the world of the brand and power-house that Chanel would later become, but there is still plenty to get our fashion-hungry teeth into.
The costumes are, of course, gorgeous – thanks to costume designer Catherine Leterrier, who had Karl Lagerfeld on hand to give his thoughts on her initial sketches. Millinery, Chanel’s first fashion venture, is represented throughout the film with creations from none other than Stephen Jones. In scene after scene, there is a brilliant contradiction between Chanel’s androgynous and easy going style with the overtly-frou frou feminine, laced up fashions of the time.
There’s also plenty of scenes where Chanel is shown working away with fabric; in her time as a lowly, yet talented, seamstress and then later as she makes creations for herself in order to carve out her own personal (and at the time rebellious, almost shocking) style. As we see Chanel working away with chalk and tailors curve, we know that we are supposed to be watching a genius at work.
Lagerfeld has said that when he designs his Chanel collections, it is the capricious mademoiselle Coco that he has in mind. It’s a pleasure, then, to see this anarchic Chanel represented so well by Audrey Tautou. Some have said they find the character hard to like, but head-strong women are just my cup of tea and I love a film with a great female role model at its core.
So, without a focus on fashion, the film inevitably centres on the romances of the young Chanel. It would be easy to write off ‘Coco Avant Chanel’ as a cliched love story that just happens to be based on true events, but that would be too simplistic.
By delving into Chanel’s love life, we are given an eye-opening account of how limited the options available to women were at the time. Here we find a proud and dignified woman, forced to live out an undignified scenario as a mistress to the rich Etienne Balsan. With respectable women not expected to work in France (as Balsan says there is still some ‘galantry’ there), they must find support in other ways… and being a mistress is the business minded Chanel’s choice.
It’s a pretty stifling choice for a creative and freedom-loving woman, however, and Chanel quickly comes to resent earning her keep through sex and entertainment. That’s where the dashing Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel (played by Alessandro Nivola, above) comes in, and the whole thing gets rather gorgeous and sexy. Who’d have thought that the word ‘Jersey’ could send lovely shivers down your spine? Ooh la la, indeed!
‘Coco Avant Chanel’ is a beautiful spectacle, in its vistas and its costumes. It’s also a slow film, allowing you to melt away for a while into an elegant world. Many will be drawn to it because it deals with the life of a hugely influential fashion icon but that isn’t all that the film can enlighten us on. This is a fabulous story of one woman’s choices in life and love at a shifting point for all woman-kind. Chanel was ahead of her time in terms of fashion, yes, but most importantly she was ahead of her time as a woman in a man’s world.
All images from IMDB.com