Coco Chanel’s fashionable fairytale

Coco Avant Chanel
Director: Anne Fontaine
Starring: Audrey Tautou, Benoit Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola, Marie Gillain, Emmanuelle Devos
Release date: Sept. 25. 2009

EDMONTON (CUP) – She gave us the little black dress, she gave us perfume and she gave us the simplicity and comfort we craved in women’s clothing. She’s beauty and she’s grace. She’s France’s own Mademoiselle Coco Chanel, the Great Emancipator of women’s bodies, no longer enslaved to corsets.

Many of us are acquainted with fashion icon Coco Chanel and the massive empire she built. But this French film is a look at Coco “avant” Chanel – or for those without a background in the French language, Coco “before” Chanel (and you thought it was her middle name!). Her name was, in fact, Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, and her modest beginnings were a far cry from the Coco the public would grow to know and whose fashions we would worship.

Coco Avant Chanel begins with a young Coco and her sister being unceremoniously dropped off at an orphanage, despite having a living parent. Their father sends the girls there and never returns. The film then cuts to Coco as a young adult (Audrey Tautou), working at a Moulin club as a seamstress and singer with her sister, Adrienne. The two pair up for a nightly duet, always singing the same song about a girl named Coco – hence the nickname.

She grows up cheeky, slightly jaded, fiercely independent, charming when she so chooses and, above all, ambitious. She disregards convention, she eschews corsets and she scorns love (note: foreshadowing). Tautou blends all of these qualities with grace and a self-composed exterior, as appealing to the audience as her character is to those she meets, especially Baron Etienne Balsan, the man who would change her life and provide her first introduction to French society.

However, Coco is no Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.” This is all a means to an end, advancing herself in the world. While surrounded by women adorned in extravagant hats, corsets, bustles, feathers, and lace, Coco is unimpressed by French fashion and wears strictly men’s clothing, altering vests, shirts, ties and jackets to suit her own unique style. The complex evolution of a singularly unique woman is well crafted by director Anne Fontaine, who highlights the most significant events in Coco’s early life, and portrays what events and people were most influential to the icon she would become.

The storyline, while not the most dramatic, keeps you engaged at all times –provided you don’t mind subtitles – because it is so genuine. At its very least, the film is always visually pleasing, not only in the costumes, but in locations as well, from Balsan’s grandiose estate to a trip to the seaside resort of Deauville.

Tautou plays Coco and plays your emotions with subtlety and depth, taking on this dynamic character with apparent ease. Coco is, after all, a compellingly contradictory character. It’s hard to resist the paradox of the constant undercurrent of her unwavering sense of determination contrasted with a desperate kind of aimlessness. A friend best summarizes Coco’s early life when she tells Coco, “You want, but you don’t know what.”

We know how this story ends – with Chanel No. 5 and blazers for all. But this is not the story of the Chanel empire, or even the story behind the icon. It’s the story of how she got there – a young girl of modest means in a man’s world, working her way up in her own right.

Coco Avant Chanel will be opening at Princess Cinema in Waterloo on Dec. 18.