With a talent like Audrey Tautou, we could only expect Coco Before Chanel to be delicious. Like chocolate, the portrayal was perfection. Not only does Tautou look the part, but she also embodies the intensity, instinct, and humor of the legend as well. In an inspired coupling with Benoît Poelvoorde (as Étienne Balsan), Tautou brought back to life a woman at once captive by society and simultaneously out of bounds.
But like any taste of chocolate, a performance like this demands an encore, and if this film has a fault, that is its brevity. Never again will an actress so fit this role, and yet here was a film that just glanced upon the events that made Coco “Chanel.”
As the title suggests, the film explores Chanel’s beginnings. She is shown orphaned as a child, then working as a seamstress, a singer in a bar, and finally she is shown as a mistress. Each of these stages deserves its mention in the film. But director Anne Fontaine chose to focus her tale primarily on Coco’s first great love affair, concluding with quick clips of Chanel as the commercial Product. A deeper layer of Coco’s character–her resilience (against the disappointments and obstacles in love, politics, and war)–is utterly neglected.
When Coco moved in with her first lover, Étienne Balsan, she was welcomed privately as a sexual partner and dismissed from opportunities to socialize with guests of nobler rank. And yet she was determined to take her place among them. Behind the walls of Balsan’s castle, Chanel sprang from vulnerability to confidence and back again in a relentless cycle, until she made the decision that would set the pace for the rest of her life and career. She chose to leave. Her departure from this man’s world is the chapter of Coco’s life that I would like to see, the chapter in which she shed the security she’d come to know in her lover’s home and forged a path ahead to an empire of her own.
This chapter is why Chanel was named one of Time’s 100 Mos Influential People in History. She became a self-made woman in an era when women were not supposed to make anything: not hats, not dresses, and least of all, something of themselves. Before Coco became a designer label, she struggled to be allowed to make hats, open a shop, and later, to keep her shops afloat. Coco respected industry above all else, which is why she fell for Balsan’s friend, Boy Capel. Capel was a self-made man in a world of “old money.”
Another point in her life that I can imagine filmmakers not wanting to dwell upon, for the sake of preserving their hero, is her work during Nazi-occupied France. When neither her own profits nor other lovers’ contributions could produce the funds to keep her business alive, such was her determination that she took a new lover and accepted his aid. His name: Hans Gunther von Dincklage. His title: officer of the Third Reich.
Plenty of drama and controversy flooded Coco’s life and work, all ripe for the telling in film. Fontaine exposed just a modest morsel in Coco’s early life, which–in comparison to the years building the Chanel brand–can be described as mild, green drama. This was a woman of metal, not just silks and wools. Hers was a complicated story, and not in any phase of life one that began and ended with men and love affairs. There was always agenda, sociopolitical and professional agenda. The heart of Chanel was her work.
If you’re like me and love to investigate different versions of the same story, check out the Lifetime network film, Coco Chanel with Shirley MacLaine. Here’s a film that covered a broader scope, and with a very capable actress as Coco, Barbara Bobulova.