Behind the seams of Chanel

Coco Chanel’s life pre-fashion house is engrossing, but this biopic fails to deliver all the goods.

Coco (Audrey Tautou) in self-designed costume.
PHOTO COURTESY SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Coco (Audrey Tautou) in self-designed costume. PHOTO COURTESY SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Kara Nesvig

âÄúCoco Before ChanelâÄù STARRING: Audrey Tautou DIRECTED BY: Anne Fontaine SHOWING: Landmark Edina (opens Oct. 16) The legendary Coco Chanel was a chain-smoking, tweed suit-wearing grande dame of the fashion scene, a pioneer of style. Not only did she bring women the little black dress, but her innovative designs set them free from the binds of restrictive undergarments and brought about a new generation of wild women. But even Coco had to start somewhere. Enter âÄúCoco Before Chanel,âÄù a French picture dedicated to Gabrielle ChanelâÄôs formative years as orphan girl, cabaret chanteuse and mistress of two powerful men. Audrey Tautou is Gabrielle, nicknamed Coco for a silly song about a pet dog she and her sister performed nightly for a smoky club of rich men. Coco displays a knack for clever sewing and a complete disregard for the fashions popular in the early 1900s. (âÄúShe doesnâÄôt wear corsets!âÄù one man exclaims, shocked.) Even though her garments are far plainer than the women drenched in feathers, she enchants men like Ãâtienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) with her sharp tongue and darting brown eyes. While on extended vacation (read: sheâÄôs sleeping with him) at BalsanâÄôs countryside estate, Coco begins to create the designs for which she would soon become famous. She takes the manâÄôs tweed jackets and trousers and tailors them to fit herself to favorable response from both sexes, thus freeing herself from the social restrictions sheâÄôd been bound by her whole life. Through playing the role of BalsanâÄôs mistress, Coco falls in love with Arthur âÄúBoyâÄù Capel , a self-made coal magnate who would be the love of the never-married ChanelâÄôs life, and he gives her the initial funding to begin the millinery that would later become the House of Chanel . (Since this is âÄúCoco Before ChanelâÄù we donâÄôt get to see much of the Chanel empire, though it would eventually grow and become one of the most influential fashion houses ever.) Though the cinematography is gorgeous, naturally, as most of the film is set at BalsanâÄôs near-Paris mansion, âÄúCoco Before ChanelâÄù has only small glimpses of the vim and vigor Chanel was known for in her later years. It drags like a train on one of the lacy gowns Coco so detested (âÄúMeringues!âÄù she calls them) and doesnâÄôt gain steam until CocoâÄôs affair with Capel picks up. The problem with period films is too much time is spent focusing on beautiful costuming and lovely scenery, and while thatâÄôs very well and good, âÄúCoco Before ChanelâÄù leaves one wanting. Tautou is, as always, enchanting to behold and her resemblance to Mademoiselle Chanel is striking, but sheâÄôs never given the space to fully inhabit the woman. ItâÄôs the filmâÄôs costumes that deserve any praise this film might receive. âÄúCoco Before ChanelâÄù is more than a biography of a fashion designer; itâÄôs also a treatise on the nature of garments and how what we wear shapes our lives. CocoâÄôs simple silhouettes and complete shunning of the frills and furbelows favored by the fine social scene Balsan entertains nightly make her an outcast at first but soon become her key to fortune. Since this is a fashion movie at its heart, and one about Chanel at that, the costume designers had to recreate her designs as seamlessly and perfectly as possible, and they do. Everything Coco dons and creates, from boyish jackets to slouchy trousers, feels as fresh and modern in 2009 as it did in 1915. The House of Chanel is based on reinvention; each season, its designer Karl Lagerfeld takes a Chanel trademark (the tweed jacket, the camellia, the 2.55 bag) and brings it new life. ItâÄôs too bad that âÄúCoco Before ChanelâÄù couldnâÄôt quite reinvent the blasé biopic.