Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Anne Fontaine, 2009
Starring: Audrey Tautou, Benoit Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola, Marie Gillain

While I'm resolutely disinterested in most fashion, I have a passionate love for Coco Chanel, both as a woman and a business mogul. Her story, which has inspired countless biographies, is unique. She began life in an orphanage, where her father abandoned her, and made a career as a seamstress and cabaret dancer, moving up through the French nobility, eventually gaining patronage from her lover Boy Capel. Though Capel was a playboy and married a wealthy British noblewoman, he supported Chanel financially, allowing her to maintain complete control of her business. It soon became one of the most profitable fashion empires in Europe.

Coco avant Chanel (Coco Before Chanel) tells the story of Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel's rise to fame and fortune. If you like biographies, foreign dramas, or movies with Audrey Tautou, this is for you. If you're looking for a film about fashion or Chanel's artistic process, this is not it. At its heart, Coco avant Chanel is a love story, albeit a terribly depressing one not unlike La vie en rose, the Edith Piaf biopic. This isn't a spoiler -- any one who knows about Chanel has undoubtedly heard that Boy Capel's death in a car accident was supposedly the most tragic event of her life. Despite his marriage, their affair continued for almost a decade and though she took other lovers after his death, she refused to marry.

Though the film is somewhat slow, it should be applauded for it's utterly unromantic depiction of Chanel's early life. From her abandonment at the orphanage, her life seems to have been a series of bitter disappointments that she was able to rise above with her powerful but unfocused ambition, as well as her unique and independent way of looking at life. Her determination to leave behind the blue collar environment she was raised in pushed her towards cabaret dancing and signing, which is actually where she received her nickname "Coco." Her relationship with the Baron Balsan is depicted as a sad affair: cold, manipulative, and entirely businesslike. I think the reason I enjoyed this film is due to the interesting attempt at unflinching realism. At no point is it likely that anyone would admire or wish to emulate Chanel, but despite her many setbacks and stubborn ambition, she lived a life completely of her own choosing. This makes her an admirable and somewhat sympathetic character, despite her coldness and occasional cruelty.

Like all of her films, this is a Tautou vehicle. She has Chanel's mannerisms down and even resembles her. I'm not sure if I would recommend this film to most readers of this blog, but Chanel and Tautou fans should be pleasantly entertained, as well as anyone interested in period cinema. There's a simple Sony DVD should you wish to check it out.

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