You may be forgiven for thinking that this movie is aimed at connoisseurs of fashion and, in particular, fans of Coco Chanel and her extremely successful and iconic fashion empire. This would generally be a decent assumption because many biopics are reliant upon an existing fan base with a general understanding of the main character’s history and rise to fame.
In the case of Coco Avant Chanel, no background reading is required. I had nothing more than an inkling of some of the famous Chanel looks, let alone any comprehension of who Coco Chanel was or even when she embarked on this business venture that would turn her and her brand into a fashion icon.
As one might expect from the title, this covers the period of Coco Chanel’s life that led up to the creation of Chanel as a brand. Ordinarily, this would not seem to be a wise move: think if Ray, Walk the Line, The Doors or even Great Balls of Fire ended once the main characters got their record contracts. But, in some cases the making of an icon is as much about what made them become an icon rather than merely famous and can stand on its own as a complete piece.
At the time of watching, I found myself comparing the movie to rock biopics, but with hindsight I find myself reflecting more upon it’s similarities to The Motorcycle Diaries and even, at times, Lust for Life. Where we see glimpses of the inspired work that would become so famous and the audience is in on it, but the character is oblivious as to just how important what they are doing will become.
Away from the creation of signature Chanel looks, I found it to be a movie about identity. It seemed that from Chanel’s upbringing in an orphanage, she developed a defiant non-conformist self. Which becomes apparent given this is in a period when all other females are trussed up in corsets and Coco is dressed in much more comfortable bespoke adapted menswear.
But defiance does not make her invulnerable. Heartache and self doubt are always close at hand throughout. She learns many lessons along the way and these continue to build the shape of the character that she becomes.
The film is an absorbing story of love and ambition at a time when aristocracy and family standing were the overriding factors. From an aspiring performer in saloons with her sister, Coco becomes involved as a sort of live in mistress with a member of the aristocracy and from there begins to make her mark on the lives and fashions of those she encounters. Ultimately, she finds love and leads the affair on her own terms.
The movie looks like as much care has been taken with representing the period as Chanel would have spent perfecting a garment. This attention to detail helps elevate the rags to riches story to one of class and style which so befits the central character’s status within modern fashion history.
Although I am certainly no Chanel aficionado, I did feel that there were plenty of clues and hints towards the inspiration of Chanel’s signature looks. And the parade of multiple fashion garments at the end really brings home the range of designs that Chanel created that would generally not look out of place today and certainly the influence is still seen far and wide.
The film is engaging and Audrey Tautou is exemplary in the lead, but I feel the real show stealer is the overall design to recreate the period.