Coco Before Chanel

Coco Chanel wasn’t really Coco, she was Gabrielle Chanel. Not fond of the Coco moniker as a young woman, it seems poignantly odd that she would take it as the name for her product line later in life. This is only one of the austere unconventionalities of Ms. Chanel, a woman who also refused to style herself after, literally, any woman of the time. Not only did she dress different, but she carried herself different, thought different, dealt with men different, and effectively ended up different than probably many of the women she knew.

All these character traits (and more) seem charmingly and effortlessly espoused by the magnificent Audrey Tatou. If Tatou didn’t fall so well into this role, it would be an easy film to pass off as trite, foreign independent arthouse drama. The idea of the unacceptable love affair that brews between Coco and “Boy,” her English playboy who she later finds out is marrying an heiress to a coal fortune, is brilliantly played out in the final acts of the film. She’s at first hurt and dismayed at his unfaithfulness to her, but once he offers to cover startup costs for her hat-business in Paris we find her easily swayed. I’ll admit, this is the turn I was waiting for the storyline to take, but in retrospect I feel bad that I kept assuming Chanel would build her empire on the foundation of another’s coin.

I believe she was sincere in her love for Boy, but it takes the better part of the film to determine where her sincerities lie. In some respects, I tend to think that she kept the Coco name in an effort to keep alive the memory of her lover, confidante and similarly nicknamed business partner (who was at once empathetic to her dislike for Coco). When we’re forced to watch her destroyed at the site of Boy’s car accident (one that she would have been in had she actually went with him), we can’t help but pay close attention in the next scene to her nonexistent facial expressions as she sits on the mirrored spiral staircase of her studio watching the trail of towering models slink past in all their monochromatic Chanel glory.

Was her (soon-to-become ubiquitous) work outside of hat-making the result of a need to fulfill what she’d lost? It’s the question that seems ultimately answered as she cracks the coolest of French smiles before the credits roll.


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