Coco Before Chanel
by Bridget Ascenzo
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Appropriately named, “Coco Before Chanel,” the latest from director and co screenwriter Anne Fontaine, focuses entirely on the legendary Coco Chanel’s early years as she battles poverty and class snobbery to become the beloved fashion icon we know today.
The movie begins even before Coco, as ten year old Gabrielle Chanel and her sister are unceremoniously dropped off at an orphanage by their father. Thus abandoned, the sisters stick together as they grow up, eventually scraping by as seamstresses by day and cabaret singers by night. It is here in the bright and gaudy bar that Coco finally emerges, taking the name from a popular song as her own.
A fling with a rich French baron starts Coco on a stint as a very kept woman on his lavish country estate. Slowly she gains more and more access to his upper class world while developing her own persona and style in direct opposition to the wealthy degenerates hanging around the estate. As elements of her own fashion begin to gain popularity among the women of high French society, Coco falls in love with an English business associate of her blue-blooded benefactor. With life growing ever more complicated, she continues to grow as an independent individual and a successful businesswoman in a society that frowns upon both.
French darling Audrey Tautou lends her loveliness and depth to the role of Coco. The character is written in such a way that seems to keep her wallowing in stern humorlessness for the bulk of the movie and with any actress but Tautou this would have been absolutely maddening. As it is, Tautou manages to walk the thin line separating seriousness and unsympathetic mostly on the side of the former with snatches of the actress’s natural charm shining through.
The movie itself is beautiful, replete with evocative period details. The ostentatious fashions of the day provide our modern eyes with striking illustrations of just how innovative and groundbreaking Chanel’s style was. Beyond the fashion, the movie truly captures the spirit of turn of the century Europe with its indolent, debauched upper class and the rumblings of social change brought on by technology, new ideas and world events that inexorably propelled society toward the rest of the 20th century.
Bridget Ascenzo is a freelance writer and singer living on Chicago’s north side.
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