Gorgeously rendered, "Coco Avant Chanel" would be a visual treat even without the drama of Coco Chanel's real life woven into the film. I caught it on Friday, and it was one of my more pleasurable movie-going experiences of the year. The film focusses on a narrow window of a life rich with experience, and and makes the most of it, revealing Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel to be complex, playful, and determined.
The film focusses on her exacting nature when it comes to aesthetics, a nice move because it is her specific-ness that made her a visionary. The film contrasts her plain, simple style alongside the gussied up women of her time, and it works, because who doesn't want to look like the breath of fresh air she was, liberated by her trousers and simple blouses from strangling corsets and constricting bustles. One scene particular when she steps out in a simple black trouser suit of her own making for a dinner party was a joyful and subtle fashion moment.
The film also humanises Coco Chanel, whom sometimes seems like a caricature, a stick-thin woman with red lips and a cigarette. I never get tired of watching Audrey Tautou and for some reason her fantastic acting always comes as a surprise to me. She brings to life the sombre mood of the film and depicts the flaws that reveal Chanel's vulnerability, but she manages to keep her at a distance at the same time, a woman who is ultimately an enigma, remote, very much her own person and not one that reached out and yearned to accepted.
The sombre mood of the film is broken by the joy of Chanel falling in love with Arthur "Boy" Capel, and even this is tinged with sadness. As Chanel says in the film: "I always knew I would be no one's wife"
The fashion will lack the sophistication and polish that we have come to identify with Chanel, and true, the film leaves out her later influences (the pearls, Ballet Russes, the bag, the perfume, the braid-trim jackets) save for a fashion show at the end. But it does a wonderful of capturing her early and defining experiences, as well as her precise, singular eye for style. She was entirely herself, and she made her vision come true.
I think by not trying to be too ambitious and cover every significant moment of Coco Chanel's life, the film is manages to say so much with so little. Since we know how history turned out, there's no need to dwell on what comes later. This film is about beginnings.
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