The Making of a Fashion Icon – Coco Before Chanel

Audrey Tautou plays the grande dame of Parisian haute couture in ‘Coco Before Chanel’ – a movie based on the life of Gabrielle Coco Chanel before she became a brand – became public property. Directed by Anne Fontaine, the film spans across a period in Coco Chanel’s troubled early life, tracing the genesis of her personal style, and perhaps the DNA of the fashion world itself.

Coco is orphaned at a young age with her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain). The movie follows the young girl into a life when she becomes a courtesan and starts performing in double-acts in cafes and bistro bars. She meets a rich gentleman farmer, Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), and follows him to his château outside Paris. She makes an attempt to crack into the Paris showbusiness with Balsan’s help.  It turns sour and she starts earning her bread as a dressmaker. While staying at the château, her bemused patron presses his sexual prerogative, but there is something in Chanel which will not let her become anything as banal as a kept woman.

Throughout the movie, Anne Fontaine focusses on Chanel’s instinctive prowess to notice what is amiss with women’s clothes – when they are too uncomfortable, too gaudy, or too absurd at times. She dons a short bob haircut and wears simple clothes that efface womanly curves, which in her eyes are unchic and unacceptable.

With the money and social connections of Balsan, Capel and d’Alençon behind her, Coco starts to slowly establish herself as a designer and revolutionise the fashion industry. And, in so many ways, re-invent the industry.

Conversations slip among velleities and carefully caught whispers and secrets, and as new plots start developing, white flannel trousers are replaced by themes of unrequited love and intrigue. Coco goes through a slump and a depression; she starts pouring her emotions solely into her art. The clean lines of her designs, the black and white colours juxtaposed with elegant high-contrast stitching – embody the underlying themes of the movie. This transitory phase in her life eventually reflects in her clothing – holding pieces of her past.

A tastefully furnished drama, the film is notable for outstanding performances from Tautou and Poelvoorde and their relationship. Tautou exhibits maturity to portray and carry off the big role of a complex personality and gives an excellent performance. Poelvoorde, on the other hand, gives a brilliant supporting turn as Coco’s sponsor and sugar daddy.

Tatou is far prettier in the movie than Chanel, but style does not come naturally to her. What Coco possesses goes beyond grace or physical beauty. The movie is brilliant but in the end, the viewer is left pondering. What is it that is missing in Tautou or what is it that Coco Chanel possesses that makes her such a brand success? Can it ever be bottled? If so, will such a thing smell like Chanel No. 5?