‘Coco avant Chanel’

Coco Chanel had her wits and was no twit


Coco Chanel once said “the most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.” Coco Chanel, however, never had to live in the 21st century.

These days, thinking aloud has become a social blight on the level of ugly billboards or tiger cockroaches. Whether it’s U.S. congressman Joe Wilson breaking generations of protocol and yelling “You lie!” at U.S. President Barack Obama, or Kanye West grabbing a mike during a televised awards ceremony to let us all know how much he liked Beyonce’s music video, we live in the age of the blurt.

What would Coco — who was born in the 19th century, after all, and died in 1971 — have made of Twitter, where it seems no thought is too pointless to leave unexpressed? Or the countless “comments” sections of blogs, YouTube, and social-media sites, where people are absolutely fearless in expressing the most obnoxious opinions? (Though rather unsurprisingly, these people lack the courage to attach their real names to their flames.)

As a lover of cinema, though, it’s the blurt reviews that really make me want to weep. Take the film, “Coco avant Chanel,” a biopic of the legendary fashion designer, starring Audrey Tautou. The film tracks Chanel’s prefame rise, from abandonment in an orphanage as a child, through a stab at nightclub singing, to then convincing two wealthy patrons to finance the startup of her own boutique. It’s a fine film, focusing with admirable sensitivity on the contradictions and compromises that shaped Coco’s youth, with a combustible, sultry performance from Tautou.

Coco avant Chanel
Director Anne Fontaine
Run Time 110 minutes
Language French (English subtitles)

Yet, in the age of the blurt and the “it’s all about ME” generation, typical is the online “review” by one “JD (beachrose)”: “I have to wonder,” she writes, “why exactly are we celebrating women getting ahead by sleeping with men? H’m, I guess I was just a fool to go to college and try to be a success on my own, n’est-ce-pas?”

This is just so wrong on so many levels, so lacking in empathy, that one barely knows where to begin. First of all is the blinkered inability to accept the film’s context, the very idea that a movie can take us into a past era, where — guess what? — society may have been very different than it is today. Like Roman Polanski’s “Tess,” or Zhang Yimou’s “Raise The Red Lantern,” “Coco avant Chanel” is an unflinching look at a time before women’s liberation, when men of means felt it their right to purchase the affections of their mistresses, and women without social status or connections — let alone an orphan! — had far, far fewer options than they do today. Without money or status, college was as much an option for the young Coco in 1908 as, well, finding her absent father on Facebook.

In fact, the film’s tension comes from the conflict between Coco’s fiercely independent nature and her need and/or desire to be with men who would lay claim to her.

We first meet Coco, with her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain), in a small provincial town where they work as seamstresses during the day, and as rather amateurish cabaret singers at night. Adrienne is flirty and determined to land a man as her ticket out, but Coco is brittle, sharp tongued and suspicious of men’s attentions.

“The only thing interesting in love is making love,” she declares. “Too bad you need a guy for that!”

Yet almost despite herself, she finds herself slowly charmed by one customer, an aristocrat named Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), who, although much older than Coco, has an easygoing, self-deprecating way. When Coco’s mouthing off gets her fired, she packs up and pays a surprise visit to Balsan’s sprawling estate; he agrees to let her stay, but the unstated rule is that they’ll be sharing a bed.

What follows is a sharp portrait of a woman torn between some actual affection, a disinclination to be treated like a consort, and the desperation of having no other place to go. A “celebration” of trading affection for favors, this is not.

By the time Coco moves on to her next lover — a British businessman and ladykiller friend of Balsan’s, Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola) — she’s already learned enough to know that, if she can’t have the security of marriage, she will have the security of running her own business. This she does quite capably, after startup assistance from Capel, turning her menswear-inspired designs into a daring look that would be adopted by the flappers of the 1920s.

Does this represent “sleeping your way to success?” Perhaps. But, the film insists, Chanel did indeed love Capel, and though she was quick to assert her independence and get out from under his wing financially, years later, he would still have a hold on her heart.

Such are the contradictions of our lives, and “Coco avant Chanel” evokes them with great lucidity. It might be too much, in the age of blurt, to ask people to sit back and actually consider something, but this film demands it.