The name Coco Chanel is synonymous with understated glamour and elegance in today’s fashion world. Gabrielle Bonheur, however, is a name few recognize.
Director Anne Fontaine’s cinematic depiction of the designer before she became a household name rejects the tired portrayal of Chanel in her glamorous later years, instead focusing on her humble beginnings. “Coco Before Chanel” makes an easy transition from France to America due to the strength of its filmography and picturesque style. The elegance of the settings and costumes, and the importance of visual elements to propel the story forward are fitting in a film depicting a woman noted for her prowess in aesthetic creativity and design. From the opening scene, during which the camera captures Coco’s nauseatingly jerky carriage ride to her orphanage, the audience is enraptured both emotionally and physically into the film itself. The color palette of grays and neutrals further underscores the misery of Coco’s early life, and the tones that she would come to prefer in her design choices.
Fontaine’s film progresses with Coco and her sister working their way through life in matching dresses, performing at drunken bars for rich patrons and sharing a bed in a small apartment. It is only when Coco meets Etienne Balsan, a rich playboy, that she reveals her ambitious nature, and her climb to the top begins. A cynic from the outset, Coco comments, “The only good thing about love is making it. Too bad you need a man for that.” However, she quickly dives into an affair with Balsan when she realizes there is potential for her to exploit his connections. Coco is headstrong and willful, following Balsan to his manor outside of Paris and taking advantage of his loneliness to gain entry into a life of glamour and comfort.
It is among the baroque pleasures and excesses of Balsan’s lifestyle that Coco as we now know her first appears. Gliding between Rococo tables and heavily draped furs, Tatou reveals the self-complacency and ease with which Chanel accepted the luxuries of style and elegance. While Tatou’s portrayal of Chanel is eerily spot-on, particularly because of the strong physical resemblance between the actress and the icon, she appears old and tired throughout much of the film, as if already resigned to a droll life of work and drudgery.
As Coco settles into her new life with Balsan, her defiance of both social and style norms is deliberately highlighted amongst Balsan’s friends — actresses in frilly frocks, corsets and ludicrous hats and the dashing men that court them. Chanel sets to work transforming tastes, swapping floral hats for simpler straw ones, and her ingenuity clearly shines through in her designs for the stage.
Yet, despite these glimpses of Chanel’s penchant for fashion, the movie unfolds more like a love story than the story of Ms. Bonheur’s transformation from the abandoned daughter of a salesman into the iconic designer that she is best remembered as. Her two love interests, Etienne Balsan and Arthur Capel take center stage as the main determinants of her fate and the objects of her passion. Coco’s sense of style is relegated to more of an eccentricity in her personality than a driving passion and talent. While crucial moments in the plot are marked by Coco’s affinity for sewing — she packs up her needle and thread when heading to live with Balsan — her talents appear more as survival necessities than a deep-seeded interest in fashion.
“Coco Before Chanel” is noteworthy for its exquisite filmography, yet begs the question of whether or not Coco’s later life was not perhaps more interesting than her humble roots. Affairs with Nazi spies in the Ritz hotel, and a rumored proposal by the Duke of Westminster all marked her later years. While most of the drama in the film takes place solely within the confines of Balsan’s castle, her affairs with Balsan and Capel in reality had little mark on her later life. These relationships, however, comprise the majority of Fontaine’s plot. The end of the film catapults us into the middle of the Roaring 50’s, in the height of Coco’s career as a designer. Yet the lanky models, and sharply-dressed women in the audience of Chanel’s fashion show seem anomalous with the time period and unnervingly modern. Furthermore, Coco appears brooding and unhappy — highly different from the powerful and stoic persona she often exuded. In the end, the film’s title promises much more glamour and style than it actually delivers. It is foremost a love story, rooted in a timeless Eden, that only delivers a final and unsatisfying montage of the woman that created Chanel.