Simone de Beauvoir may have given us feminism, but Coco Chanel gave us the L.B.D. (Little Black Dress), which is, let’s face it, a much more viable survival tool.
Start talking “The Second Sex” jargon at a party and the entire male populace will probably unite in a panicked stampede toward the door. But the power of a snug little L.B.D. needs no words and hushes all arguments. In the end, it was Chanel who understood what a woman really needs while Beauvoir (with all due respect) remained steeped in her political agenda.
From this viewpoint, the surprise isn’t that there’s a Chanel biopic out there (with the very straightforward title of “Coco Chanel”), but that there aren’t 25 more of them. Think of what women owe her. Until Chanel came along, clothing design was a strictly male-dictated industry, and women who worked didn’t have much choice when it came to wardrobe — the pendulum was likely to swing between cleavage-heaving vamp or much-tried spinsterish secretary. Really, what was a girl to do?
Coco Chanel changed the fashionscape when she liberated women from paddings and corsets and wrapped their bodies in elegantly streamlined, deceptively simple dresses that were comfortable as well as alluring. She also knew how to do business and recognized the importance of brand identity; her famed perfume (No. 5) achieved legendary status because Marilyn Monroe professed to wear it in bed.
Directed by Christian Duguay, “Coco Chanel” was originally made for TV, and it shows in the paint-by-numbers sequence of the life and times of one of the most famous designers of the 20th century and the rather obvious narrative setups (“Did I tell you about the time I invented the Little Black Dress?”) voiced by that designer at every opportunity. The package is also plagued by faux French accents (“It eez ze best time of ze day”) from the entire cast, with the exception of Shirley MacLaine in the role of the mature Coco. There’s no changing her broad, Virginian speech — delivered in that strident, no-nonsense manner, but oddly enough you start to think that if Chanel had been born in the U.S. instead of France, this was exactly what she would have sounded like. Between MacLaine and Czech actress Barbara Bobulova (who plays the younger Chanel), they keep the vehicle afloat and running — each epitomizing the soaring highs and crushing lows of Chanel’s extraordinary 87-year life.
Coco was a pet name she later gave herself. In the beginning, she was Gabrielle (Bobulova), a seamstress who grew up in an orphanage because her father couldn’t afford to look after her. The story depicts Gabrielle as feisty but feminine, concealing a steely will to succeed underneath a rosy, fragile exterior. She has an affair with the rich, handsome Lt. Etienne Balsan (Sagamore Stevenin) and almost capitulates when he suggests a permanent alliance (“Zis life iz not so bad, no?”) in his posh Provencal villa but stops herself just in time, because she knows in her heart that work ultimately comes first. Later, when her business partner, Boy Capel (Olivier Sitruk), proposes marriage, she refuses because she owes him some startup money. Coco was far from the cold, standoffish businesswoman though — Bobulova depicts her as soft, kittenish and extremely sensual — a woman who remained comfortable with that side of herself even as she was cutting hard deals and endless dress patterns.
In spite of its lengthiness, “Coco Chanel” never really addresses the problems that assailed mid to late 20th century working women. The narrative is confined to the persona and personal history of Coco Chanel which, compelling as it is — would have benefited from a more social context. According to her biographers, Coco Chanel always thought and spoke in terms of society and self-supporting women, but here her first priority is her own sweet self. But then who better to play such a woman than Shirley MacLaine: When she waves a cigarette between two fingers and delivers bons mots like, “A woman wearing the wrong perfume has no future,” the immediate urge is to kneel and apologize profusely before running to the nearest boutique counter for that No. 5.