Haute couture, if successful, challenges the mind and reinvents the figure. It is eventually resolved into clothing that’s actually wearable, but runway fashion has more to offer than that. In Anne Fontaine’s Coco Before Chanel, a minimalist account of designer Coco Chanel’s early adult life, viewers are completely transported into Belle Époque France, and acquainted with a woman whose on-screen ascension is almost as easy as the designer herself would have you believe.
After a brief look at the orphanage where she spent her childhood, Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel (Audrey Tautou) is introduced as a rude and resentful cabaret singer. It is during this time in her life that she acquires both her unwanted nickname and her distaste for the moneyed classes. Though an unremarkable entertainer, Chanel begins her rise out of poverty after she identifies cabaret patron Étienne Balsan (Benoir Poelvoorde) as a target for her charms. Following Balsan to his estate outside Paris, she turns a couple days’ stay into an indefinite one. Argumentative and unlike other women in his social circle, Chanel never stops demanding respect. When not fulfilling her amorous obligations to Balsan, she creates the stability she needs to begin experimenting with her innovative, comfortable dresses.
It is while in the countryside that Chanel, now a discontented milliner and occasional seamstress for Balsan’s female acquaintances, meets businessman Boy Capel, played by an attractive Alessandro Nivola. Capel is a self-made man who equals Chanel in cleverness and shares her thoughtful enjoyment of romance. He is also Balsan’s good friend, but once she falls for him there is no doubt what will follow. Chanel’s audacious approach to these two men and her career is contemporary in every respect, save for her old-fashioned acceptance that life cannot be full in every regard.
Fontaine’s camera is skilled at mimicking the designer’s appraising gaze. Appropriately, the only time it lingers is while admiring some instance of craftsmanship, like when young Chanel’s gazes approvingly at the simple starched caps of the nuns at her orphanage. Later, she dismisses the feathers and lace of the gentry’s clothing. However, she occasionally seems to appreciate this style that she will help render obsolete, raising the question of whether her dislike for Belle Époque fashion is based purely on aesthetic reasons.
It’s rather frustrating for fashion lovers that the movie doesn’t spend more time on the process of designing. The brief scenes in which she discovers the inspiration for her designs, like the loose, striped shirts of fishermen or the jersey in one of Capel’s shirts, are delightful. But the focus of Coco Before Chanel settles on the designer’s relationships with Balsan and Capel.
The movie moves at a nice speed, and the director takes a lot of license with chronology in order to accentuate the romances. Though she’s shown now and then settled with a book, the movie rarely conveys the sameness of Chanel’s days in the country, instead focusing on the moments of sudden daring that defined her early career. Stability, aside from brief shots of Chanel in her first hat shop and a design studio, is fleeting. Even a last, exultant scene, displaying the refined orderliness that Chanel so coveted in her 20s, feels sad.
Tautou is exactly right for conveying the 20-something Chanel’s irritated condescension, and is appealing enough to deliver lines like “The only interesting thing in love is making love.” Even in her portrayal of an older Chanel, Tatou’s resemblance to the designer is as memorable as Marion Cotillard’s Édith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. Both movies acknowledge that certain tragic things must happen in an admired woman’s life, yet only Coco Before Chanel makes the ongoing chore of a woman’s self-assertion inspirational.
Chanel was one of most influential figures in the shift to modernity, and her skirt suits in midweight weaves are so standard now it’s a marvel to realize they were ever innovative. But the best thing about this movie is that it conveys the sense that Chanel could have as easily, if given different opportunities, ascended into the moneyed class by other means. Fontaine’s Chanel is a graceful, cunning opportunist, and in this regard too, ahead of her time.