“Coco Before Chanel”
(AKA “Coco Avant Chanel”) is the first of several upcoming films about the iconic Gallic designer to hit the theaters.  This one, starring French actress Audrey Tautou (“Amelie”, “The Da Vinci Code”) and American actor Alessandro Nivola (“Laurel Canyon”, “The Eye”) is more soap opera than leçon de mode.  Focusing on her life from childhood through her 20’s, the audience learns that Ms. Chanel was an independent-minded lady with renegade ideas about fashion as well as equally unorthodox ideas about men and marriage.  In particular, the film concentrates on her pivotal relationships with two men in her life as a young woman.  F.I.T. students and fashion queens alike going to see the movie will probably get their fix, especially with the brief Chanel runway show at the end.  But, as the title states, this is Coco before Chanel– meaning, before “Chanel” became a household name that exists to this day.  At at time when gaudy, overdone fashions were the standard in pre-World War I France, Coco helped usher in the black suits, simple skirts, and unadorned hats that became her trademark and created a whole new style that exists to this day.

     Coco started life as Gabrielle Chanel, who was raised in an orphanage after her mother died. Her father didn’t look back and never visited.  As a young woman, s he barely earned a living as a seamstress and a cabaret-style singer and dancer.  (Her nickname “Coco” is taken from a song she sings.)    Of course, it wouldn’t be performing that eventually got her noticed…. but thanks to her wide-eyed dark beauty, she still attracted the attention of the guys.  One of those guys is a child-minded, rich socialite Baron Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), who’s preoccupied with his horses and throwing lavish parties for his fellow child-minded, rich socialite friends.  The Baron wants to make Coco his “kept” woman.  Faced with limited possibilities, our héroïne consents.  She becomes pretty much a concubine trapped in a castle– and often kept behind closed doors as not to “embarrass” the Baron in front of his high-caste peers.  Yet, it’s soon Coco who’s in control, even though she never really warms up to Balsan as a lover; he’s not particularly attractive nor charming.  Living alongside the upper class while not actually being a part of it, she observes the often ridiculous fashions of the wealthy French women… the too-tight corsets, the dresses with long trains, too much jewelry, the big hats that seem like a separate entity, etc…  The men’s clothes seem much more comfortable and functional.  A lightbulb goes off above her head.  Even as she gains respect among the upper class, Ms. Chanel is still the fashion rebel; In one scene, she rejects a pretty pink number for a much simpler dress.   She gives up=2 0the hat altogether.

      Both Coco’s libido, and the movie as the whole, comes alive when English businessman Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola) comes into town. The Baron “gives” Coco to Boy, but she more than willingly complies.  Like his name suggests, Nivola as “Boy” Capel is equal parts sensuality and youthful charm.  The audience knows that if Ms. Chanel was wearing a corset, she’d soon be out of it… as well as the rest of her garments.

     Throughout “Coco Before Chanel”, you can’t take your eyes off Audrey Tautou.  Pretty as she is, with her big black eyes, she can still convey the aura of hardness that the young Coco took on, thanks to a tough early life.  As one of my favorite actors, as well as one of the most (unfortunately) underused, Alessandro Nivola is all sex appeal as the man who may have been Coco’s one true love.  Interestingly, watching this very watchable movie made me wonder (at the risk of sounding like a fashion expert): Have we gone to far in exchanging fashion for comfort? Although the overdone ensembles of the French women in the film seem like Halloween costumes nowadays, they make me look at a lot of today’s everyday women’s wear with a bit of a yawn. Pants have been so common for American women for so long that it’s sometimes easy to forget they even have legs.  When did women start wearing men’s-style shoes, boxer shorts, and “women’s briefs”?  What happened to hats?   And, worst of all, when did we say “au revoire” to bright colors? For some input, I asked New York City’s Queen of All Media, Lady Clover Honey, certainly NOT afraid of looking too “girly”:  “Women’s fashions should be unlimited.  Women have a freedom that men don’t have… unless that man happens to be a drag queen!  Women can wear any color, any pattern, any print, any jewelry, big brooches, etc….  An advantage to being female, either biological or otherwise, is that you can have fun and go over the top!”   As a man, I’m jealous!

“Coco Before Chanel
” is now playing.

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