Anna’s back, this time with a pre-release review of the apparently delightful Coco Before Chanel. Here’s her take.
With a talent like Audrey Tautou, we could only expect Coco Before Chanel to be delicious. The portrayal was like chocolate: perfection. Not only does Tautou truly look the part, but she also embodies the intensity, instinct, and humor of the legend as well. In an inspired coupling with Benoît Poelvoorde (as Étienne Balsan), Tautou realized the delicate balance between a woman in social and emotional captivity and a woman constantly out of bounds.
But like every sumptuous morsel, a performance like this demands an encore, and if this film has a fault, that fault is its brevity. Never again will an actress so fit the role of Chanel, and yet here was Tautou, tailor-made for the part, in a film that just glanced upon the events that made Coco Chanel.
As the title suggests, the film explores Chanel’s beginnings, but just barely. She is shown orphaned as a child, then working as a seamstress, a singer in a bar, and finally as a courtesan. Each of these moments deserves their mention in the film. But when she falls in love—a near impossible feat considering her past—Tautou does not have the opportunity to live out Coco’s resultant determination. Anne Fontaine’s story speeds past the juicy bits of Coco’s battle to climb the social and professional ranks despite all odds, and instead ends the film with sparse clips of Coco as the Final Product—the legend that the film promises plainly in the title NOT to address.
The events that best reveal her character are those involved in her struggle and determination to become a self-made woman in an era when women were not supposed to make anything: not hats, not dresses, and least of all, something of themselves. Before Coco became a designer label, she struggled to open a shop, and later, to keep her shops afloat. Coco respected industry above all else, which is why she falls for Boy Capel. He is a “self-made” man in a world of “old money.”
Coco worked through the Second World War in a Nazi-occupied France. When neither her own profits nor her lovers’ contributions could produce the funds to keep her business alive, such was her determination that she found a new lover and accepted his aid. His name: Hans Gunther von Dincklage. His title: officer of the Third Reich. Plenty of drama and controversy flooded the life and work of Coco, and all before she earned recognition as Chanel. Why then would Anne Fontaine choose to leave so many details untouched? This was a woman of metal, not just silks and wools. Hers was not a story, in any phase of life, that began and ended with men and love affairs. The heart of Chanel was in her perseverance through the fluff, her independence from frills and feathers.
This is not to say that Coco Before Chanel didn’t have its strengths. If anything, it is one of the most honest films on the subject of modern feminism I’ve seen. And the portrayal of the time and Coco’s surroundings was extraordinary. As Anne Fontaine’s first period piece, this was without doubt a success. Once Coco moved in with her first lover, Étienne Balsan, her story truly came alive. With Tautou behind the wheel, Coco weaved in and out of utter vulnerability and unmatched confidence.
But though it is true: Coco’s life within the walls of Balsan’s castle is a novel unto itself, and a film worth making; the key to Coco lies in the fact that she left. And that departure is the film I want to see. She had the courage to shed the security she’d come to know and make a castle—an empire of her own.
If you’re like me and love to investigate different versions of the same story, check out the Lifetime network film, Coco Chanel with Shirley MacLaine, that aired in the fall of 2008. It was definitely worth seeing.