Coco Before Chanel

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            Born in a poor house and raised in an orphanage, Coco Chanel spent her first twenty years designing her life. She became the primary fashion designer of the 20th century, famous not just for the clothes she designed but because her core intuition led her to innovation that changed the culture of modern women. “Coco Before Chanel” is a thoroughly charming telling of her early life. The delicate Audrey Tautou becomes Chanel.

            Coco meets Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde) while working in a tailor shop with the sewing skills she learned in the orphanage. Shortly after Etienne returns to his estate outside Paris, Coco makes the first of her pragmatic decisions and follows him. She moves in and becomes his mistress. He gives her clothes, diamonds, and boredom. Etienne’s guests are all rich, indolent, and covered with flounces and cascades of fabric; how else, one woman asks, can they avoid looking poor.

            Coco, unable even to imagine being able to do physical things while encased in corsets, padding, stays and underskirts, realizes that women are merely prisoners of their clothes. They are diminished, she knows, by the frivolous feathers and flowers attached to their dresses. They look like trash, she tells herself. “Too many feathers, too much ma keup, too much everything,” she says of the constructed woman. How can they do anything?

            And so the lovely young woman moves through Etienne’s social life in her unadorned straw hat and a striped fisherman’s jersey under a tweed jacket. Balsan himself remarks, “Shoes with no heels, hats with no feathers, that’s my Coco.”

            When Etienne proposes, she faces the fact that she simply can’t stand him or his world, and refuses. At this point she falls in love with a guest, Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, and he with her. When Capel moves to England to marry an heiress, Coco refuses to continue as his mistress (for the moment anyway) and replies, “I’m moving to Paris. I’ll make my fortune.”

            Audrey Tautou gives a restrained and subtle performance that reveals Coco’s admiration of dignity and simplicity in all things. She never married, didn’t believe in it, and thought a woman in marriage was doomed to unhappiness. Tautou also manages to convey the enormous reserves of strength that powered this woman who grew up without a family and turned away from the easy avenue of being an ornament on the arm of a man.

            The movie closes with Chanel sitting gracefully on a white staircase overseeing an early collection. Dressed in her signature suit, white with braid and metal buttons, Chanel, in the delicate presence of Audrey Tautou, is the embodiment of the style she had been designing for all her young life. She succeeded in defining elegance through simplicity with her designs, and sublimely, also gave women the comfort and freedom they had never known. The elegant woman in white at the top of the stairs finally allows herself a broad smile.


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