The name Chanel may conjure up images of the icons of the legendary fashion house – the quilted leather purse with chain shoulder straps, the braid-edged tweed jackets and suits, or even the simplicity of the Chanel Number 5 bottle – but behind this flagship of French luxury was a woman of great character: Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel.
A new film, Coco avant Chanel, directed by Anne Fontaine, offers a fascinating portrait of the young Coco from the time of her birth at the end of the 19th century up until she founded her own fashion house in the 1920s. She is beautifully and sensitively brought to life by Audrey Tautou (of Amélie fame), whose brown doe eyes effectively suggest the courage and determination that explain her character’s later success.
The young Chanel, an orphan, had to sing in bars for her supper à la Piaf but was armed with an iron will. She was ready to take on the world and change it after her own fashion.
She started out as a humble seamstress, repairing the torn petticoats of the more privileged. Her early world was full of feathered and flowered fancy ladies, still corset-bound, floating along in oversized hats and skirts.
The film shows Chanel as a high-spirited, independent young woman, realistic enough to enlist the help of wealthy male benefactors as she walks the tightrope between being a kept woman and a visionary rebel with the courage to dress in simple, boyish clothes.
Chanel dispensed with corsets, feathers and flounces, and her wealthy lover’s friends soon began to take notice. Since all this plays around World War I, the film takes on historical and sociological dimensions through the adventures of its young, determined heroine.
Coco’s love interests are played with charm and dash by Benoit Poelvoorde and Alessandro Nivola. And French actresses Marie Gillain as Coco’s sister and Emmanuelle Devos as her friend and benefactor add just the right Gallic feminine touch.
“Je veux être de ce qui va arriver” was a favorite saying of Mademoiselle Chanel. This film is the illustration of her success.