Coco Before Chanel: a rags-for-riches tale

Anne Fontaine’s biopic suggests the French fashion icon was as much a social climber as a trend-setting genius.

Delphine Chui

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Anyone who’s been curious enough to delve into the life of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel will tell you that to describe her life as appealing would be an understatement. So it would seem only natural for French cinema to want to capitalise on such a powerful life-story with, in this case, an Anne Fontaine-directed biopic.

Unfortunately, the result – Coco Before Chanel – is restricted to her pre-fame years and doesn’t really give the audience much more than a glimpse of the reason why her early life might be interesting in the first place: Chanel. Think Richard Branson before Virgin, with no mention of planes, trains, or music shops. But in French.

It’s 1893 when we’re first introduced to the young Coco, or, as she was then known, Gabrielle Chanel, an orphan who waits each Sunday for the return of her father. He never appears; cue daddy-issues and an embedded distrust in men. Instead, 10-year-old Gabrielle is left to look sullenly upon the faces of children who are whisked away to better lives, an expression which Audrey Tautou, playing Coco’s later incarnation, masters perfectly throughout the film.

Fifteen years on, Gabrielle and her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain) find themselves as cabaret performers. And it is here that Gabrielle is first transformed into ‘Coco’, a nickname given to her by the aristocrat Étienne Balsan. The best friend of Adrienne’s lover, Balsan (played effortlessly by Benoît Poelvoorde in a performance which should not be overshadowed by Tautou’s) is introduced to us with a prostitute in one arm and glass of champagne in the other. Humble beginnings, Coco says, do not bring one to the heights of society. For this reason, she lies about her past at every opportunity, making her character less easy to sympathise with and her calculating mind apparent. Men to Coco are dispensable human steps on the social ladder. She will not convert to love, she promises Balsan.

Despite occupying a centimetre’s worth of higher ground when she refuses to sleep her way to the top of the local cabaret bar, she does accept Balsan’s invitation back to his chateau, not least because of his connections at the Alcaza club, a place at which Coco is desperate to perform. Sadly for Coco, the Alcaza manager is unimpressed by her one-woman show. Left with a handful of cash, she packs her things and decides to set out in hope of something better.

‘Better’, at this stage, seems to involve being a kept woman. Arriving at Balsan’s mansion unannounced, she proceeds to service his needs in the manner of a traditional grande horizontale in return for a comfy life. But Coco is too proud, too modern, to put up with this existence for long. Not content to reside in his bedroom and become ‘an angel of absence’, she rebels, rummaging and customising Balsan’s clothes to create what was to become her signature mannish look in chinos, white shirts and top hats.

A contact of Balsan, actress Emilienne d’Alençon (Emmanuelle Devos) further encourages Coco’s defiant nature. Not least in the bedroom, where allusions to Coco’s supposed bisexuality are artlessly made. ‘Skin is skin when the lights are off’, says Coco suggestively. Aside from being her lesbian lover, Emilienne also becomes Coco’s first mannequin, on whom she tries to demonstrate elegance in simplicity rather than the then de rigeur rococo adornments and frills.

Enter Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel (Alessandro Nivola), the mysterious Englishman that Fontaine highlights as key to Coco’s development. Lured into his loving grasp by philosophical prose and piano playing (well, it seems to float Coco’s boat), she is made to question the nature of love, a development which reveals a warmer side to what is often a rather one-dimensional, cold portrait. This strange love triangle between Coco, Capel and Balsan works because of the men’s differing roles; Balsan plays the father-figure while Capel encourages and inspires her fashion anarchy.

Eventually Coco, with her hats now a fashion hit, leaves Balsan’s ‘castle’ to go to Paris to start up her own millinery and, at long last, becomes a celebrity. Unfortunately, how this has all happened has hardly been explained.

This is ironic given that director Anne Fontaine seems to have tried to create a film with the underlying message that anyone can rise to the top. Despite this meritocratic premise, Coco Before Chanel seems to spend more time highlighting that ‘who you know’ is what counts. Talent is secondary. Fontaine also fails to shed much light on Coco’s motives for wanting to rise to the top of the fashion world. At one point, while reading a newspaper story about the ‘happy poor’, she claims such views are just inventions of the rich. While it’s a decent point, too often the viewer is left wondering what was stronger for Coco: her love of fashion or her love of money.

The whiff of amorality and avarice would have become a stench had the film strayed beyond its pre-War origins. As is now known, during Nazi Germany’s occupation of France, Coco tried to use the anti-Semitic laws of the 1940-44 Vichy government to wrest her fashion business from its Jewish backers. Her long affair during this period with high-ranking Nazi Hans Gunther von Dincklage does nothing to dispel the less attractive aspects of her life-story.

Even in its own simplifying terms, Coco Before Chanel’s attempt to tell the story of how a girl rose from rags to riches, challenging convention and becoming an icon in fashion history is just a little bit, well, dull. The one redeeming feature is Audrey Tautou’s performance that, rich in wit and dark mannerisms, rescues the viewer from the desperately predictable storyline.

Even as a film about the implausibly superficial world of fashion, Coco Before Chanel lacks depth. It does not give the full story of the woman behind the Chanel logo nor does it portray very many of her inspirations. The fast-forwarded nature of the narrative leaves the audience asking how she got from A to B with nothing but a comment from Balsan to go on. ‘A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life’, he says as we see Coco coiffed as a more recognisable Chanel. As many viewers will doubtless testify, a new haircut rarely changes anything but the length of one’s hair.

So there we have it. Catastrophes and hardships later, Chanel’s empire is born. Despite the attempt to unravel Coco before Chanel, a girl supposedly shaped by loneliness and anguish, all Fontaine offers is an insightless take on one of twentieth-century fashion’s most influential and mysterious figures. After seeing Coco Before Chanel, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel remains just as influential, and sadly, just as mysterious.

Delphine Chui is currently an intern at spiked.

Watch the trailer for Coco before Chanel below:

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