This article was first published on Culturewatch.org. © Tony Watkins, 2010
Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel is arguably the most influential fashion designer of the twentieth century. She revolutionised French style early in the twentieth century, bringing a simple, fluid modernist approach in place of the stuffy extravagance of late nineteenth-century fashions. Coco Avant Chanel (dir. Anne Fountaine, 2009) tells the story of this extraordinary woman’s early life, and how she went from impoverished beginnings to mixing with the aristocracy. It is a charmingly unhurried film, which simplifies, even re-imagines, a very complex character, but Audrey Tautou perfectly embodying the title role brings a steely determination which drives it forward.
The film opens with Gabrielle and her sister arriving at an orphanage. Their mother had died, but their father was away working and every Sunday afternoon she would wait in vain for her his arrival. The disappointment could have made her bitter, but it seems instead to have given her a sense of independence and resilience which characterised her adult life. After leaving the orphanage she works as a seamstress in the provincial town of Moulins, alongside her sister Adrienne (actually a composite of Coco Chanel’s sister and aunt, played by Marie Gillain), and in the evenings they sing cabaret songs together. One of these, ‘Coco’, leads to her nickname. She catches the attention of a millionaire playboy and cavalry officer Etienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) who, for a time, is stationed in Moulins, and they become lovers.
After Adrienne moves away, having been wooed by a wealthy friend of Balsan, Coco packs her things and arrives at Balsan’s Chateau de Royallieu unannounced. Balsan is pleased to have her there for a few days, but doesn’t want her mixing with his aristocratic friends when they come to stay. First he insists that she stay in her bedroom, then tells her to leave, but Coco finds all kinds of excuses for staying, telling lies constantly to conceal her poor background. Balsan is protective of her, and she begins to be accepted by his circle, especially when her gift for creating radical new looks and stylish hats becomes apparent. She has an amazingly acute eye, spotting small details in the world around her which inspire her new looks. Coco is happy to benefit from Balsan’s patronage, but doesn’t want to be his long-term mistress; for her, sex seems to be about fun rather than love.
While at Royallieu, Coco meets Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel (Alessandro Nivola), an English industrial tycoon and a close friend of Etienne Balsan. Soon they are deeply in love with each other, the first time Coco has allowed herself to become emotionally involved with someone. He sponsors Coco in setting up a business for the first time and his influence on her is enormous. Audrey Tautou says,
The confidence and the way Boy Capel looks at her comforts and reassures her. He knows that Chanel holds the future in her, and that the spirit of freedom in this woman embodies modernity. Boy Capel has grasped her remarkable nature, and he makes her understand that her difference is not a handicap, but that on the contrary, it will be her strength. It will trigger change for her destiny. What they have in common is precisely this modernity.
Coco Chanel is a fascinating mix of a character. She is a headstrong individualist, who in some ways has complete disregard for what others think of her. She cuts her hair short and, rather than wear the frilly, very feminine, but imprisoning styles of the day, she makes her own, merrily helping herself to Balsan’s clothes, adapting them and creating for herself a totally different image from any other woman. She also has an unconventional attitude to sexual relationships, with no apparent regard to what others will say about her affairs with Balsan and, later, Boy Capel. She refuses ever to be any man’s wife, probably because of what she had seen her mother endure from her father as a young child. And she is adamant that no one else has the right to tell her what she should or shouldn’t do, how she should live or behave. It is this independence of spirit which made her the great fashion designer that she became. This freedom is echoed in the cinematography, which frames almost everything in Coco’s life before arriving at Royallieu very tightly, with subdued lighting, and then gives us wide expanses, large rooms and bright, sunny scenes.
And yet we also see her repeatedly lying, fabricating elaborate stories about her past to hide the truth. Director Anne Fontaine quotes her as saying, ‘I invented my life because I didn’t like my life.’ In some senses, she had to do so – at least, she had to invent her future as there was no obvious route marked out for her in life. Fontaine says, ‘Nothing was programmed with her; she is not pursuing a career to reach success; she is inventing. She does not have the ambition or the tools to conform to the world of the bourgeoisie – its doors were closed to her – so she drew attention to herself to start at the top of provocation. She does not want to abide by this world but to adapt it to her own personality.’ But there is a marked difference between stubbornly refusing to let the world squeeze her into a particular mould and spinning a web of deceit over her past. For all her courage in forging a new identity, she was too scared of others rejecting her to be open and honest about who she really was.
Coco Chanel seems like she would fit in more comfortably with contemporary postmodern culture than with the early twentieth century. Her focus on image, her determination to reinvent herself, her disregard for conventional relationships, the way she uses Balsan and her lack of concern for truth are all very familiar in our own setting. There is, as so often, an irony in that her expectation on others, especially Boy Capel, to tell the truth doesn’t match her expectations of herself, though perhaps she was more honest with him as he was the only man she really loved and entrusted herself to. Both before and after their affair, Coco’s life was marked by loneliness, despite being surrounded by other people. It is hardly surprising, though, if she could not allow herself to trust anyone else enough to be honest about herself. Being so fearful of rejection that she has to constantly embellish her childhood, she is constantly holding herself back from committing herself to others – Boy included. Understandable it may be, given her childhood, but it is very sad that she apparently never realised that the way to close relationships – to love – is to love unconditionally, without reservation, judgment or deception. We never achieve the ideal in our human relationships, corrupted as we are rebellion against God and thus tainted by pride and selfishness, but this is what we must aim for. The alternative, as Coco shows, is to rely on a constructed image, which cannot finally satisfy us.