Tight corsets, frilly, oversized hats, restrictive garments, and unflattering silhouettes were the fate of well-dressed woman before Coco Chanel. It sometimes took hours for women from polite society to get dressed and it sometimes took the same amount of time to get out of their birds-of-paradise contraptions. Before Coco Chanel women dressed for their husbands or the men they wanted to marry; after Coco Chanel women dressed more for themselves.
In Coco Before Chanel, director Anne Fontaine examines the life of the woman before she became the fashion icon that changed the way women and the world looked at fashion and the modern feminine silhouette. Most of us know only of the demagogic, eccentric, short-bobbed Coco Chanel, smoking incessantly as she demanded perfection from an endless supply of assistants. Fontaine presents the young Chanel, struggling against her lowly station in life and figuring out what would later become her self-expression of the feminine.
Fontaine’s inchoate heroine was borne at a time when women had few options; wife, mistress, courtesan, whore, or work drudge. Initially Chanel chose the latter, but when the drudgery of being a humble seamstress became intolerable, Chanel aimed for a life on the stage. With the patronage of wealthy racehorse owner Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), Chanel was free to pursue her creative endeavors and design clothes—at that time mostly for her own body—that were a unique combination of masculine and feminine aesthetics. Unlike other courtesans of that time, Chanel shied away from contour enhancing, over-embellished clothing. Early on her fashion aesthetic emphasized simplicity, clean lines and freedom of movement, initially evidenced in her simple, deconstructed hats. Over time, her boyish style and clothing became her signature look.
Fontaine presents a character that is determined to break with tradition and explore the limitless possibilities of her great talent, regardless of the consequences. Realizing that her station in life has created seemingly insurmountable obstacles to domesticity and comfort, Chanel did what all great women do; she looked to herself and her talent for the answers.
As Coco Chanel, Audrey Tautou brings the intensity and focus that we have come to expect since her performance in Amelie. Tautou’s slim frame and her soul-piercing gaze serve her well in her incarnation of the young Chanel; however, Tautou brings more than uncanny resemblance and narrative eyes to this role. Tautou brings an organic understanding of that period and the forces that shaped Coco Chanel, creating not an imitation of Chanel, but her own nuanced interpretation. Because of this she unearths elements of Chanel’s character that until now have stayed locked behind the myth Chanel herself helped to create.
Fontaine successfully demonstrates in Coco Before Chanel, that although Coco Chanel’s fashion sensibilities grew out of her own frustrations with the constrictions of class and the limited possibilities for women, at the core of this angst was a fashion forward understanding of what women really wanted and needed. And like Chanel, Fontaine strips away any extraneous distractions, revealing the simple, incandescent soul of this great fashion icon.
Coco Before Chanel opens nationally on September 25 and stars Audrey Tautou, Alessandro Nivola, Benoit Poelvoorde, Emmanuelle Devos, and Marie Gillain. Coco Before Chanel is in French with English subtitles.