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Coco Before Chanel

Sarah Tierney thinks Audrey Tautou was tailor-made for this one

Published on July 30th 2009.


Coco Before Chanel

Watching this film about the early life of Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel, you realise how much you take for granted as a twenty-first century lass. The right to earn your own money rather than relying on a husband to keep you housed and fed. The right to wear comfortable clothes that don't cut off your oxygen supply. The joyful simplicity of the little black dress.

She's proud and mouthy rather than deferential and sweet. She is, as her lover Arthur Capel tells her, an anarchist.

Coco Chanel can't take the credit for the first, but the other two are her work. Starring Audrey Tautou, and directed by Anne Fontaine, this biopic tells the rags-to-riches story of how she went from penniless orphan to world-changing fashion designer.

Tautou, a contemporary icon of French elegance and style, is perfect for the part of Coco. Like the designer, she's petite, boyish, and singular. She's also fantastic at capturing Coco's ever-shifting moods

We first meet her as a stoic little girl being ushered around an orphanage by nuns, their faces hidden by oversized white cornettes. She reappears as a cynical young woman with a cigarette in her mouth and a sharp, sarcy tongue that doesn't put off the suitors in the cabaret bar where she works.

Tautou presents Coco as very much a modern-day woman. She doesn't take any nonsense, she doesn't believe in love, and she has a healthy disrespect for fawning men. That is until her sister (the other half of her cabaret act) abandons her to live with a wealthy baron, and Coco decides that a well-oiled patron might be exactly what she needs.

It's while she's living in the château owned by Etienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) that she starts to think seriously about clothes. In particular about how impractical the current styles are, and how badly-dressed Balsan's bourgeois lady friends are.

Flaunting their wealth through their wardrobes, they favour expensive feathers, laces, and plenty of bling. The saying 'less is more' hasn't been invented yet; their dresses are overrun with frills and flowers, their ribboned corsets are suffocating, and their flouncy hats threaten to topple them over.

“How do they manage to think in those things?” asks Coco – herself sporting a chic boater hat. She prefers to slouch about in silk pyjamas, high-waisted tweed trousers, and fitted shirts. She has, she says, a “good sense of distaste” and it's not long before she's putting it to use, making copies of her hats for the rich ladies who party at the château.

The difference between Coco's dress style and the fashions of the day is marked. As is the difference in her attitude. She hates being a kept woman but can't stand the idea of a life of drudgery as a seamstress. She's proud and mouthy rather than deferential and sweet. She is, as her lover Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola) tells her, an anarchist.

It's when she's in a particularly anarchic mood that she decides to invent the LBD. “Only black shows off the eyes,” she says, turning down the tailor's offer of a girly pink material.

Fashion lovers will find this film fascinating; it's packed with clues about where Coco's most famous styles originated from, such as her striped blue t-shirts, and the signature Chanel bag. But what's most striking is not how timeless they look, but the freedom that her outré thinking about clothing brought to women.

Coco wears trousers and shirts so that she can race around on a horse without restriction but by normalising 'men's' clothes on ladies and creating simple, fuss-free styles, she gave generations of women the opportunity to move around easily and freely.

By mirroring her quest for sartorial freedom with her quest for financial freedom, the film makes what might seem a trivial subject – clothes, shoes, accessories – into something much bigger. The little black dress was originally a symbol of individuality and independence – and there's few people who wear that look better than Tautou.

7/10

Coco Before Chanel (12A, subtitled) is showing at Cornerhouse from Friday 31 July to Thursday 13 August.

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