Retrospective Review: Coco Before Chanel

By Dominic Corr

Before the brand, there was a woman. Before that little black dress, there was a little straw hat – preceding all of this, was ‘Coco Before Chanel’ (2009), based on the writings of Edmonde Charles-Roux’s ‘Chanel and Her World’.

In celebration of Anne Fontaine’s biographical film’s tenth anniversary, we look back at the movie which seeks, not to place Chanel as what the public understand, but to retreat into her roots. A woman of merit stretching far beyond her role as a fashion designer, a liberator to the constriction of the pre-war corset silhouette of the European women, and a company leader. The young woman who would refuse to succumb to the banal interests of rich men, instead maintain a presence of bohemian brilliance which would change the face of couture culture and women in the place of business.

In a role which is frequently said to be one she was ‘born to play’, Audrey Tautou takes on the mantle of Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, or as the world would know her – Coco Chanel. Notable in her gamine charm, Tautou is, one must admit, the epitome of perfect casting. Exceeding simple aesthetical similarities, Tautou’s mannerism, and characterisation match that of Chanel magnificently, in a rare moment of blindness to the performer – we see Chanel, we no longer see Tautou.

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Audrey Tautou as Coco Chanel

Developing excellently playful chemistry with Tautou, Benoît Poelvoorde fails to fall into a category of a patriarchal antagonist, maintaining a close relationship with the real-life counterpart of Étienne Balsan. A French socialite, he took to becoming Coco Chanel’s lover, as she remained in his residence for her life following her days singing in the bars of Moulins.

Echoing what would be her inevitable future as ‘public property’ Coco is discussed by her male companions, though never directly crass, in a sense of objectivity. Upon repetitious requests to; ‘be more feminine’ Coco’s response is to maintain a steadfast aesthetic, one which she would design for Hollywood herself. Apparel which ensnares powerful men, despite protestations of hidden curves and concealing flesh. The clothes fellow women in the room wear, to Chanel, are unbecoming, cumbersome and uncomfortable and unsurprisingly, have the desire of men as their intention.

“Catherine Leterrier may have been unsuccessful in obtaining a BAFTA or Academy award for her costume design, but small merit winning a Caesar Award. An honourable, if underwhelming honour as the visual nature of the film is easily its greatest asset following Tautou’s performance.”

Stepping into an androgynous merging of gendered clothing, frequently remarked in her dressing as a ‘boy’, Fontaine’s film is a clever piece on the obsessive need for men to dress women, and in turn, the reversed gaze in which woman would make decisions on their gowns. How this develops from written elements into visual is what keeps ‘Coco Before Chanel’ an interesting piece, even as the narrative grates with age.

Little insight is up for concern as to the film’s nature as a visual creation. With academy award nominations for its costume design, one would expect nothing less from a film centring itself of one of history’s notable designers. In a room full of frivolity, extravagance and choking pastels, our gaze is drawn to Tauton’s costume. Astutely lacing the design into the narrative, as her world begins to choke, her garb loosens in the traditional Chanel style, exquisitely capturing the comfort chic, barrelling out against the seductive lace or restrictive corsets.

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Emmanuelle Devos and Audrey Tautou

Catherine Leterrier may have been unsuccessful in obtaining a BAFTA or Academy award for her costume design, but small merit winning a Caesar Award. An honourable, if underwhelming honour as the visual nature of the film is easily its greatest asset following Tautou’s performance.

Outside of the boundaries of costume, Christophe Beaucarne’s cinematography plays with the triatic scheme of colour in a mesmeric way – particularly in the films closing. Monochromatic in construct, much of Chanel’s work has a blend of black and white – an echoing motif throughout the film, Beaucarne splices a single colour, regularly crimson, to strike out against these polar opposite tones.

What falters the film is Fontaine’s move of pedestalling Chanel to an elaborate level, particularly once the romance with Chapel (Alessandro Nivola) accelerates. With such a tiny framework of her life under examination, such care is taken to make it interesting and unsympathetic – to see the woman before the brand, that the closing quarter of the film refrains from embracing the set pace – making for a paradoxically sluggish, yet rushed ending.

“Tautou captures the woman before she was a household name, offering a glimpse into the trials and fire she had in her belly.”

In striving to put out their name, a task already hindered in male-dominated sectors, quite often women are rounded out as too perfect, too infallible – a tragic consequence in the depiction of real women in film. Coco Chanel, for all she did, was far more compelling than the film makes her out to be. Fontaine limits her timescale, a necessity in biographical dramas, in doing this, Chanel’s darker history is cast aside, a history which the film fails to allude too. Her early successes in life are seen, but we cut the balancing secret aspirations and beliefs which keep her fallible. As such, the film moves from an unceremonious examination of her youth – to a sudden tone shift.

Director and screenwriter Anne Fontaine would later refuse to shy from controversy, her intense gut-punch of reality would unearth in her recent film “The Innocents” (2016), but for as sublime as “Coco Before Chanel”’s visuals and performances may be, one can sense the emptiness. Tautou captures the woman before she was a household name, offering a glimpse into the trials and fire she had in her belly – but is let down by writing which fails to continue the unsentimental detachment it opens with, instead, resorting to an odd mid-climax which belongs in a different film.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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