Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Coco Before Chanel

According to Debra Ollivier, an American writer who lived in France for a decade, married a French man and wrote the book What French Women Know, "It's not the shoes, the scarves, or the lipstick that gives French women their allure. It's this: French women don't give a damn. They don't expect men to understand them. They don't care about being liked or being like everyone else. They generally reject notions of packaged beauty. They accept the passage of time, celebrate the immediacy of pleasure, like to break rules, embrace ambiguity and imperfection, and prefer having a life to making a living. They are, in other words, completely unlike us." That sweep of description is an astute representation of Audrey Tatou playing Gabrielle Chanel in the new film Coco Before Chanel from writer/director Anne Fontaine.

As the title describes, the film depicts the life of Chanel before she became the infamous designer. A poor French girl raised in an orphanage, Coco as she was nicknamed, is determined to make something of herself-- something besides a mistress or cabaret singer, although she breezes through those phases early on.

She becomes the mistress of horse breeder/playboy Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde) who is amused when she raids his closet and tailors his crisp shirts and tweeds into unique fashions for herself. At first, her costumes elicit stares and chuckles, but soon she is commissioned by wealthy fashionistas for custom made hats and dresses. She rejects frills and corsets and heels, and favors flats and suits and simplicity. In short, the menswear she has adapted for herself represents the very thing she desires and admires most: freedom.

Through Balsan, Coco meets Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola), a wealthy Briton who so believed in her work he financed her first Paris shop. The love story that follows, however true,is less interesting than the rags to haute couture story of Chanel becoming the indomitable fashion icon. She lived to be 87 years old and never retired. It wasn't about the money, like so many successful people, she loved her work.

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