“My life didn’t please me, so I created my life.” – Coco Chanel
For those who always wondered how Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel came to be called ‘Coco’ to create that perfectly alliterative moniker, this biopic by director Anne Fontaine provides the answer. More importantly, as the film’s title suggests, it chronicles how the wretchedness of the designer’s early life led to her fierce ambition to succeed, and as the quote above suggests, to make things up as she went along.
The film also portrays how formative relationships with two wealthy men – namely Étienne Balsan and Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel – helped to create the legendary brand we know today. For those who admire Chanel as a feminist, the film certainly serves up requisite moments in Chanel lore that show how her nascent rebellion against society’s constraining of women firmly takes shape via her fearless and iconoclastic approach to clothes. Indeed, Chanel, played with a mix of fragility and steely calculation by the gamine Audrey Tautou, articulates her resistance towards the confines of a patriarchal society through her disdain of corsetry and ostentatious adornment in favour of the loose, masculine silhouettes, clean lines and the birth of the little black dress that will become the signatures of the house.
However, the film is also a reminder that it would be too simplistic to label Chanel as a feminist, for even as she reinvented women’s fashion, she also unapologetically relied on men and their resources to achieve what she wanted, as seen from her affairs with both Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) and Capel (Alessandro Nivola), the latter whom she loved passionately and who also shared an understanding of what it feels like to be an orphaned outsider. Nonetheless, even though both men funded her earliest business ventures, her relationship with Capel inadvertently reveals that society’s strictures can ultimately be too hard to overcome in the pursuit of happiness.
Nonetheless, personal setbacks do not mean that one cannot succeed otherwise, and the film ultimately affirms that Chanel was both a woman of her time but also one who was a survivor courtesy of both her talent and her wiles. Moreover, while she is revealed to be a compulsive liar who invents falsehoods to alternatively charm or manipulate others, the film suggests that it could simply have been magical thinking that was used to cope with early disappointments.
All in all, this is a beautifully made film that will satisfy those who want to know a little bit more about Chanel’s early years. However, for those who are already familiar with this chapter of Chanel’s life and who are looking for a comprehensive portrayal might find it lacking in terms of new insights on her life or any satisfying sense of how her design classics came to be. Indeed, Coco Before Chanel can be enjoyed as a film that shows us the girl before she becomes the legend whose relationships with important men are as synonymous as her works, but the lack of a transition between those early days and those of stratospheric success leaves us wanting more.
See the film trailer here.
For a deep dive into Chanel’s life story, try Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life by Justine Picardie, Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War by Hal Vaughan and Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life by Lisa Chaney. Lastly, the inherent complexity and inevitable obfuscations in any biographical account of a famous figure is encapsulated perfectly in this New York Times article on these biographies.