Before Chanel no. 5 and the interlocking Cs, and before the iconic quilted bag and the classic Chanel suit there was Gabrielle Chanel, an orphan whose unorthodox fashion sense revolutionized the way we dress. And in the French film (with English subtitles) Coco Before Chanel we learn of Coco Chanel’s early years.
Gabrielle Chanel’s life began quite humbly. As the film commences, young Gabrielle Chanel, along with her sister, are left at a Catholic orphanage by their father. Though Gabrielle’s childhood seemed bleak, she did learn how to sew, and the simple austerity of the nun’s habits influences her design aesthetic. Years, later and now played by Audrey Tatou, Gabrielle is working as a seamstress at a dress shop and singing at a cabaret with her sister.
While singing in the cabaret, Gabrielle meets Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), a man of considerable wealth. They strike up a friendship and he bestows her with the nickname, Coco, the name of a song she and her sister often sing. Before long Coco becomes his erstwhile mistress. She thinks his wealth may be beneficial in improving her life. Before long she is living with Balsan at his country estate.
Coco isn’t in love with Balsan, yet she bristles when he calls her his “geisha” and doesn’t appreciate when he tries to keep her hidden in the kitchen when he’s entertaining guests. Coco is not the type of femme to be ignored, and she finally asserts herself and introduces herself to Balsan’s friends.
One of Balsan’s friends is an actress and former lover Emilienne (Emmanuelle Devos). Emilienne grows fond of Coco, and is quite intrigued by her odd dress sense. At a time where women wore elaborate dresses and hats, overdone with lace, ribbons, plumes, flowers and other accessories, Coco’s simple, menswear-inspired designs were truly avant garde. But Emilienne grows to love Coco’s look, and begins to support Coco’s fashion endeavors.
At this time Coco also meets and falls in love with one of Balsan’s friends, Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola), a wealthy English man. Boy adores Coco but he won’t marry her. He is betrothed to another. Not surprisingly, Coco is not happy with this news, and she makes sure Capel provides with enough money to set up her own dress shop. Coco may never share his last name, but she’ll be damned if she gets nothing out of the love affair.
Throughout the film, we get brief flashes on Coco’s fashion influences. She cuts up Balsan’s ties, suits and shirts to fit her petite figure. She lounges around in men’s pajamas. While at the sea, she notices the fishermen’s striped jerseys, and soon they become part of her look. In another pivotal scene, we see Coco at a dress shop, administering instructions to the shopkeeper on the kind of dress she wants, black, and no corset underneath. Voila, the little black dress, the mainstay of every woman’s wardrobe, is created.
It is these moments I wish Coco Before Chanel would have focused on. Only rarely do we get to see Coco become the Coco Chanel in scenes where she is draping and cutting of fabric, making hats and finding inspiration for her designs. I do wish the film focused more on the emerging designer, and not the romantic melodramatics among Coco, Balsan and Boy Capel. The romantic melodramatics stunted the film, and made it come across like another costume drama you might find on PBS. This narrative isn’t exactly original, and if Coco Chanel was anything it was original.
Though I’m sure Coco’s personal life was interesting, I wanted it in smaller doses. It was Coco’s ascent as a fashion designer and laser-focused work ethic on creating her clothing and her brand that I wanted to see. We do get a brief glimpse of this at the end when Coco presents one of her collections at her atelier in Paris. But these scenes are all too fleeting. Perhaps what is needed is a sequel, Coco After Chanel. Mais oui?