A Fashion designer colleague was discouraged from watching ‘Coco avant Chanel’ because she wanted to know more about Gabrielle’s career ‘apres le succes.’ Thinking it might be a slight, sentimental, class-based biopic, indulging the director’s sense of nostalgia, I had few hopes for it as a distraction.
Opening with a dark-eyed girl on a cart, covered in a thick, bronze, tweedy blanket with a hand-knitted doll, we see the landscape from her point of view and the fabric textures in close-up. It was going to be about needlework? Mais, non.
Distinguished, on the DVD cover, as a story of a woman whose love affairs defied convention, it really is rather more about sewing. It has all the hallmarks of French cinema and not just because of the subtitles. Sweeping views of the expansive, so Impressionist, countryside; clever, adventurous camera angles, drawing us in, to feel how the young Chanel is both exploited and exploiting.
Audrey Tatou’s deft involvement with the process of making clothes and observing humanity is at the heart of the film’s alchemy. It mixes class drama with professional aspiration to create a modern day transformation. Cinderella invents her own ballgowns and buys the Fashion house where they are made and shown.
‘Coco avant Chanel’ charmed me totally, not just because it was fast paced, and sumptuously designed, but because it confirmed the Fashion secrets I had recently uncovered for my book ‘the new black magic.’
It convinced me that Fashion designers put their souls into their output. It condensed the Fashion system into 106 minutes of doubly moving image text.
In spectacular form it sets the scene for today’s most successful integrated cross-marketing campaign, where the Ad sells the film and the film sells the product.
When I thrill to the Chanel No 5 current television commercial I am re-living Coco Chanel’s life as a young adventurer. As Audrey Tatou moves through the corridors of the Orient Express in lithe gold satin to melt into her lover’s arms Coco’s doomed love affair with Boy Capel is re-evoked.
As the actress rushes towards the beach and views passengers on a luxury ocean-going liner, ‘la mer,’ and the French, and Coco’s, infatuation with the sea becomes part of Chanel’s signature themes, associated with the voyage and the clothes worn for the journey.
Of course Coco Before Chanel is a woman’s film. Directed by Anne Fontaine, and costumed by Catherine Leterrier, it has links with the Feminist tract, ‘The Subversive Stitch.’ Yet it speaks of elegance, observation, fame, the significance of Fashion and the power of dress to alter the way we see ourselves and are seen by others.