Movie Review: Coco Avant Chanel
Generally if the boyfriend brings home dvd rentals I can be assured I’m in for a night of French cinema. People will stare wistfully out of windows, meaningful glances are exchanged and dialogue does nothing to explain what the hell is going on. My boyfriend loves this kind of shit. I love my boyfriend, so I endure and hope the characters at least live in a nice house so I can covet their couches or teacups, or whatever. Consequently, when I go to the movies, I tend not to go French. I stick with the wide-reaching offerings of English-language films. Stuff is explained, even better, stuff blows up. However, when a biopic of Coco Chanel’s early years was released in theatres this week, I saw two things that got me over the French hurdle, pretty dresses and a lovely house. Sold.
The story of Coco’s childhood is not unfamiliar territory. Mother dies, father drops off the unwanted daughters at an orphanage…and get this, he doesn’t even turn around to say au revoir! Ouch. Sisters grow up and become torturously bad music-hall singers. It’s a story as old as the hills. The difference here, however, is sewing. Coco is not only handy with a needle and thread she’s got an eye (in fact, two…but see, it works as a pun because eye and needle…oh well, you get where this is going). While her contemporaries are swanning around in rib-crushing corsets and enough feathers and fru-fru to deck out the entire cast of Cirque du Soliel, Coco keeps it simple. She refuses to pour herself into garish evening gowns, instead opting to trick out a bit of somber gingham and create something akin to a Laura Ingalls Wilder debutante dress. Classy.
Now, it needs to be understood that I know very little about fabrics and fashion and such. My two years as a stock room manager for Ann Taylor did little for me except make me fairly handy with an upright steamer and allow me to develop an abhorrence for sweater sets. So, when during one hushed scene Coco (played by a hollow-cheeked, pleading-eyed Audrey Tautou….that girl needs a sandwich and a nap in that order) asks her lover, ‘Boy’, (played by Alessandro Nivola, the hot, uncommunicative husband in Junebug…he totally speaks French!) what his shirt is made out of and he answers, ‘jersey’…I was a little non-plussed. Wait, did he mean it was made in Jersey, what the hell is going on here? And then I remembered I was watching a French film and there was just no way I was going to know what was going on, such is the nature of the beast. In the next scene Coco is wearing a long-sleeved striped t-shirt, the kind you can easily find today on the clearance rack at your local Old Navy.
Aside from all the sewing and mysterious talk of fabrics, Coco manages to make a stab at highlighting the near impossibility of a woman endeavouring to start up a business in France of the early 20th C. Coco is only able to get her empire started by having Boy apply as her guarantor. Additionally, there is a great deal made of marriage and what a trap it is for women with ambition.
When lined up against some of the big biopics of the last few years, Coco Avant Chanel lacks any real punch. Ray and Walk the Line, for example, were saved from being completely undone by their overlong and message-laden scripts (drugs bad, music and the Lord, good!) by some powerhouse performances. Coco just left me feeling flat. Tautou’s performance informs her audience that Chanel was small, feisty, not prone to smiling and very fond of smoking. But aside from her arrival at the orphanage and some clever camera work suggesting Chanel’s trademark simplicity of style was possibly gleaned from the austere black and white habits of the nuns, there isn’t much investigation into what inspired her designs, and that’s too bad, because those brief moments are some of the best in the film.
I’ve read that Tautou is canvassing hard for a part two, Coco Apres Chanel, I suppose. I guess Audrey likes the pretty dresses too.
Author Jenna lives in Ireland. This film will be in limited release in the United States in September.