Santa Cruz Good Times

Nov 24th
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

Black To Basics

film_cocoBold outsider reinvents chic in ‘Coco Before Chanel’

Who doesn’t love a big, lush, biographical drama about a real-life woman who defies the conventions of her day to make her own place in the world? As long as the writing is at least plausible, and the actors don’t trip over the furniture, this is a pretty fool proof formula—especially for female audiences hungry for stories of self-empowerment. The story of  Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, who rose from impoverished orphan and rural milliner to become one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th Century, is—sorry— tailor-made for this kind of treatment. Still, in her thoughtful and persuasive Coco Before Chanel, Belgian filmmaker Anne Fontaine brings something extra to the mix; every lovely frame of the film is informed by the filmmaker’s resonant empathy for Chanel as a stylist, a woman, and an outsider hungry to succeed on her own terms.

Adapted by Fontaine and co-scriptwriter Camille Fontaine (no relation), from the first half of the 1975 Chanel biography by Edmonde Charles-Roux, the film begins like classic Gothic fiction. Just before the turn of the last century, little Gabrielle and her sister arrive by horse and cart at a gloomy, foreboding gray-brick orphanage in the French countryside—where their roving father abandons them after the death of their mother.

Fifteen years later, Gabrielle (now played by the piquant Audrey Tatou), is a young woman working at a seamstress’ shop in the town of Moulins. At night, she and her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain) sing music hall songs at a neighborhood bistro and pass the hat, hoping to finance their dream of a stage career. Their signature song is about a lost little dog called “Coco,” which also becomes Gabrielle’s nickname. Admired for her trim figure and dark eyes, but notorious for her “blunt” tongue, Coco doesn’t care about chatting up the customers. But when Adrienne goes off with a baron, and her own stage aspirations fail, Coco sensibly allies herself to middle-aged, but good-hearted, playboy Etienne Balsan, and moves to his estate outside of Paris.

Under Balsan’s financial protection (although irritated, if resigned, that she has to become his “geisha,” in return), Coco tries to decide what work will bring her the fame and fortune in Paris that she craves. Of course, among Balsan’s leisure class, work is a foreign concept in general; in particular, French men consider themselves too “gallant” to “let” their women work. But Coco is as unconcerned with the proprieties as she is horrified by the stifling corsets and poofy “meringue” hats that fashionable ladies wear, along with the feathers and jewels with which rich women bedeck themselves so they won’t look “poor.”

Coco scandalizes and delights Balsan’s friends by altering his clothes into simple, elegant, freestyle outfits for herself; in her soft felt hat, menswear shirts, tailored vests and trousers, she strides among them like a proto-Annie Hall, her palette basic black and white, her silhouette chic and uncluttered. Soon, Balsan’s dear friend and ex-mistress, Emilienne  (Emmanuelle Devos), a popular stage actress, is hiring Coco to design her hats onstage. Then the independent Coco is blindsided by the last thing she expects—to fall in love with Balsan’s crony, Anglo-French businessman Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola).

The illicit love affair angle is de rigueur in this kind of movie, of course. But the real love story  here is between Coco and her own evolving sense of personal style, which will change the way women wear clothes for the rest of the century. Fontaine is uncannily deft at slipping future influences into the fabric of her film as Coco’s story progresses. The most breathtaking moments are those understated ones when Coco glimpses and begins to process something that will become part of her signature style: the sober black and starched white points of a nun’s headdress at the orphanage, or striped fishermen’s jerseys on the beach at Deauville. (In one swoony shot, Coco stretches out in her crisp black-and-white outfit against a riotous pattern of rusty autumn leaves.) Well-acted, good-looking and stylish, Fontaine’s film is an intriguing portrait of a revolution in the making.

film_coco_avant_chanelCOCO BEFORE CHANEL ★★★

With Audrey Tatou, Benoit Poelvoorde, and Alessandro Nivola. Written by Anne Fontaine and Camille Fontaine. Directed by Anne Fontaine. A Sony Classics release. (PG-13) 105 minutes. In French with English subtitles.

Watch movie trailer >>>

Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment
smaller | bigger


Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share


Santa Cruz Gives

A look at the organizations we’re asking you to support in our new holiday giving campaign


Simplicity Preparing for Thanksgiving

When we study and apply astrology in our daily lives, we are anchoring new Aquarian thinking. Study, application and use of astrology, understanding its language, builds the new world, the new culture and civilization. Astrologers are able to plan right timing and right action. Next week is Thanksgiving (Thursday, Nov. 26). It’s good to understand the energies influencing us in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. When we know these things we are able to make Right Choices, have Right Action. We link heaven and Earth, our minds with the starry energies that influence us. Let us consider the following influences. The North Node (point in space where sun and moon meet, representing humanity’s present/future pathway) has just entered Virgo. Virgo is about food, purity, cleanliness, service, detail, order and organization. What can we learn from this? Because these energies are available to us we, too, can have intentions and a rhythm of order and organization, purity and cleanliness. Sunday, the sun enters Sag, joining Mercury (we have high ideals, many goals). Tuesday, Mercury/Saturn (structured disciplined thinking) squares Neptune (thoughts, ideas, goals dissolve away). Wednesday is 3 degree Sagittarius solar festival (full moon). Sag’s keynote is, “We see a goal, we achieve that goal, and then we see another.” We might have many plans and goals for Thanksgiving. However, on Thanksgiving those goals may be dashed. Saturn (structure) squares Neptune. All structures and plans dissolve and fall away. What is our response to this? We simplify all that we do. We plan on everything changing. We don’t fret. We adapt instead. Adaptation is the behavior of the Disciple. Sagittarius is the sign of the Disciple. 


The New Tech Nexus

Community leaders in science and technology unite to form web-based networking program


Film, Times & Events: Week of November 20

Santa Cruz area movie theaters >
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments


If you could be someone else for one month, who would it be?

President Obama, so I could change a lot of laws that pertain to people in jail for drug possession and other minor crimes. Raouf Ben Farhat, Petaluma, Self-Employed



Blanc De Blanc Sparkling Wine is best shared with the one you love


Rainy Refuge

Kelly’s offers killer sliders and pumpkin pie, plus dining pet peeves and wine of the week


If you won the lottery, what would be the first three things you did?

Build a restaurant, buy a house for my mom and donate a quarter of the money to the Boys and Girls Club. Jevon Martin, Santa Cruz, Chef