Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Coco avant Chanel: A Review

"There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel."

Gabrielle Bonheur "Coco" Chanel

The reason why she did not marry the 2nd Duke of Westminster.

Coco avant Chanel Poster
Très chic.

Before I review this biopic, there are several things which I need to disclaim. Firstly, I know next to nothing about the subject of this motion picture, Mademoiselle Chanel, who was - I was informed - one of the most iconic figures in fashion history and was the only couturier to be included in the Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century. Secondly, I admit my ignorance of the mores of fashion. My wardrobe philosophy is simplicity and utility. My taste in women's fashion runs very much in the same vein: minimalistic but elegant.

Clearly, I had a lot to learn and one of the things the film taught me is that Mademoiselle Chanel pretty much hold the same ideas about women's clothing as I do. It might also mean that my taste dates back to the early 1900's, making me about one hundred years out of vogue - but there's no denying Chanel's influence on modern feminine couture.

The film is titled Coco Before (avant) Chanel. It's a story of the woman before the legend. Before the advent of Chanel, women of station dressed in gaudy, ostentatious fripperies. There's a beautifully shot beach scene where Coco and her beau, Boy Capel, were strolling through a sea of people enjoying a day in the sun, and she dismissively pointed out how tastelessly the ladies of her time are adorned to him. She critiqued the profusion in jewelry. She scoffed at a woman trying to run in a corset. She laughed at the ridiculously large and froufrou hats they wear. "They look like pastries," she remarked in amusement.

Coco Beach
One of my favourite shots of the film.

Coco stood in stark contrast to her contemporaries. She looked confident without being vain or showy. She caught eyes without screaming for it. It's a testament to her monolithic and uncompromising sense of individuality that when the world and her collided, the world started dressing like her.

But that sense of individuality was not limited to just her clothes. She had been a mistress to many men, but never a wife. She disapproved of how the well-heeled crème of the French social circles did no work but horsed around decadently nibbling amuse-gueules. She could have lived a lavish lifestyle as the domesticated woman of the rich textile heir Étienne Balsan, designing hats as a diversion for her socialite friends - but no, she wanted to be productive and independent. I share her disdain for the institute of marriage. If I had been born a woman, I too would have wanted no part in the evidently unequal contract of matrimony. I would never want to surrender my name for another. I would never be so spineless as to allow each and every last one of my children take my husband's name. "Madame," a waiter addressed her. "Mademoiselle," she corrected him as a matter of factly. She considered her unwed status as something to be proud of, not as a shame.

The real shame, if you ask me, is that generations after the death of Coco Chanel, the majority of modern women would still readily believe the reverse.

Audrey Tautou as Coco Chanel
The underrated stiff upper lip of the French.

"She was the first good-looking couturier and because of her own strong look, everybody wanted to copy her. She was an artist who intellectualised couture for the first time," explains Catherine Leterrier, who designed and costumed the film. I felt that in many ways, it's amazing how she managed to recreate the simplistic exquisiteness which set Coco out and above the overdressed ladies of her era, whose ruffles and finery often threaten to drown her out. It's obvious that Chanel's - and by proxy, Leterrier's - creations were strongly inspired by menswear, and they exude a certain boyish chic which I find very fetching. I may never understand high fashion, but I certainly know what I like.

Coco Tux
Is it wrong that I find women in masculine apparel sexy?

I confess that I only watched this film because Audrey Tautou was playing the legendary fashion designer. I have loved the French actress ever since I saw her as the shy, introverted Parisian waitress in the 2001 whimsical romantic comedy Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain - or simply Amélie to the rest of the world. In Coco avant Chanel, she played an assertive young seamstress attempting to make her way through life on her own terms. The essence of her story spanned the well-trodden road between rags and riches; from an orphanage in Aubazine to being the mistress of an empire which carried her name. The tone of the film is austere, unsentimental and free of the embellishing flounces of fairy-stories; much like her dresses one could say. I have no idea how accurately Audrey Tautou portrayed Mademoiselle Chanel but at the end of it, when she sat herself down regally on a step of a spiral staircase overseeing models outfitted in her distinctive brand of haute couture as they float down past her, I had no doubt that she nailed it.

A real queen, as Coco Chanel demonstrated, needs neither cape nor crown nor king.

Coco After Chanel
Another favourite shot of mine from the film: Coco when she is Chanel.

Discovered a new heroine,
k0k s3n w4i


Michelle Chin said...

I watched it because i am a fan of audrey! she also starred in the french adaptation of breakfast at Tiffany's too. but i don't remember the title though

Anonymous said...

Mmm... The film was good and entertaining, but it didn't meet my expectations. Somehow, i found it to be somewhat lacking, probably because it seemed to try to replicate the elements behind the very successful La Vie En Rose, but failed. Do watch that if you haven't! C'est un excellent film. :) And yes, Amelie was brilliant, and it had a wonderful soundtrack.

There's supposedly a sequel to Coco Avant Chanel. I shall be hunting it down after exams!

McGarmott said...

I didn't care much for the film, except for ...

... the surprising fact that Alessandro Nivola can pull off a perfect English accent! And French too! Wow! ... Sorry, probably not relevant.

nicoletta said...

Ah. I've never heard of this film before, but that's normal for me, seeing as I'm an ignorant sod, but I do like Audrey Tautou, also from the film Le Fabuleux destin d'Amelie Poulain (I also have a predilection for using the original French title! Sounds a lot better...I wrote a bad review of it somewhere). Well, at least I think I know which movie is next on my list. By the way...irrelevant, but Pedro Almodovar is a great filmmaker for you if you like artsy, semi-feminist foreign films.

Anonymous said...

"A real queen, as Coco Chanel demonstrated, needs neither cape nor crown nor king."

Beautifully put. With added alliterative appeal too. Now I must check this flick out :D

k0k s3n w4i said...

Michelle Chin: it's called hors de prix. that's the next audrey tautou film i'm watching :)

lovealynna: i guess i'm just lucky i haven't seen marion cotillard's tour de force then - but i wasn't aware that la vie en rose had a feminist bent to it. while both biopics shared a similar plot, coco avant chanel struck me more as a character study more than a success story. my assumptions about la vie en rose might be wrong, of course - and i'll certainly find out when i get to it :D p.s. i think the movie you're thinking of is coco chanel and igor stravinsky, which is by another director and is considered by many to be a spiritual successor to coco avant chanel.

McGarmott: i don't know, man - he only said one word at a time, haha.

nicoletta: haha, actually artsy films aren't part of my usual diet. neither are films with a feministic bent. i have a preference for geek flicks - y'know, like the dark knight, watchmen, kick-ass, the LOTR trilo, coraline, etc. but i'd pretty much watch anything really.

Anonymous: thank you :)

Anonymous said...

Haha, yes, that one! I'll watch it after exams. And Hors de Prix was good too. ;)