If you live in New York or Los Angeles than this past Friday you were able to see the much anticipated film “Coco Avant Chanel,” directed by Anne Fontaine and starring Audrey Tautou. I made of point of seeing the film on opening night and, while reviews for the film have been mixed, I loved it. I found the film to be romantic, beautifully shot, easy to follow, and heartfelt. All in all, a captivating true life story brought to the screen with gorgeous clothes in supporting roles. Yet one does not need to be a fashion connoisseur to enjoy it. The film is based on Edmonde Charles-Roux’s biography of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel and examines the designer’s youth, her relationships with Etienne Balsan and Arthur “Boy” Capel, her lovers and benefactors, and her rise to fame first as a milliner (a boutique where she sold hats and accessories opened in 1913 in Paris and Deauville) and then as a designer of clothing (she opened her first couture house in Biarritz in 1915). The film ends with Chanel’s first fashion show at her famous maison de couture, located at 31 rue de Cambon, in Paris.
Alice Mackrell wrote of Chanel in Vogue magazine in 1954, “the essence of the Chanel Look was Chanel herself; her style is inseparable from her life.” This is incredibly true and, in my opinion, this idea is the film’s guiding spirit. That Chanel had her own personal style was evident from the beginning. The trajectory of this style is fascinating to observe and the director carefully choose Chanel’s key looks and wove them into the story. Chanel did not come from money. She and her sister were raised at an orphanage, where they learned how to sew at an early age and she made her own clothes. Chanel favored loose fitting garments that did not restrict movement, as she had to work for a living, and often took out the corset of the costumes which she performed in at the cabaret. It is here, during her performances, that she acquired her nickname “Coco.” From the beginning, Chanel had a predilection for men’s clothing. While staying with Balsan at his country estate, Chanel did not have much to choose from in terms of personal attire. She would often “borrow” his clothing and remake it into something that would be appropriate for her to wear. I think that at times, Chanel’s fashion choices were constituted more by her need than by her foresight. While it is true that Chanel wore pants to go horse riding, when all other women were still wearing skirts, is it possible that this was because she did not have the proper riding attire? While she initially shocked with her masculine style, she would later become famous for appropriating men’s clothing for women’s fashion. The two materials that she favored most, jersey and tweed also came from men’s clothing. In particular, jersey was traditionally used for men’s underwear. However, it was also a cheap fabric for her to use, which became very important during World War I, when women were not able to spend as much on their clothing as they did prior to the War. In the film, she took Capel’s polo shirt, made of jersey, and created a top for herself, and viola! an idea was born. A trip to the French seaside town of Deauville left a lasting impression on the young seamstress. The striped blue and white sailor shirts which she favored, she saw worn by fishermen on the beach. According to the film, the famous little black dress, a classic, was Chanel’s gown of choice for a night of dancing with Capel in Deauville. It is very clear in the film that she did not condone Edwardian fashion trends. In one scene, she says that she is embarrassed for the over-dressed women strolling on the woman on the promenade near the beach in Deauville. “She is wearing all her silverware” Chanel remarks when she sees the women dripping with jewelry, favoring a single strand of a pearls herself. Even the hats that she designed were simple straw hats with minimal decoration, nothing like the overly adorned hats, with large feathers, worn by women at that time. Another example is the camellia flower, in the film, pinned to the lapel of Capel’s tuxedo jacket. In memory of her great love, the Camellia became Chanel’s trademark.
For comparison, I also watched the miniseries “Coco Chanel,” which premiered last year on the cable channel “Lifetime,” starring Shirley MacLaine as Chanel. I was disappointed with the film which I found to be flawed for several reasons. Most importantly because I think that the film got some facts wrong. But perhaps both films are at fault for that? I am planning to read Charles-Roux’s book about Coco Chanel and separate fact from fiction.
Finally, there is a third film, that premiered at Cannes this past summer, titled “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky” which follows the “passionate, intense love affair between two creative giants.” This film has not yet been released in the United States, but it is a premiere that I will be present for on opening night as well!