Photo: ‘Coco Before Chanel’/Warner Bros. Pictures
As part of Hollywood Insider’s Hidden Gems Series, we aim to bring forth and highlight movies that must be watched from around the world. International films that are brilliant hidden gems and masterpieces of cinema that are worth your time. Today, we highlight ‘Coco Before Chanel’ which is available to watch on Amazon Prime.
Coco Before Chanel (Coco Avant Chanel) stands poised among the rest. This delicate, Parisian cinema triumph directed by Anne Fontaine depicts the life of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel before she earned her title and empire, it is widely regarded for lighting a fire under the name that started as nothing more than a fashion brand. While this film is about a famous fashion designer, it is not about the opulence or flamboyance of her life following fame. We see what her childhood was like, as well as the other impactful events that shaped her future. Drawing you into life in France during the 19th and 20th centuries, this film is sure to dazzle you and provide a more grounded view of this famous figure.
Director Anne Fontaine spoke exclusively to Hollywood Insider during an interview reminiscing on the film more than two decades after its release. Hollywood Insider asked Fontaine why ‘Coco Before Chanel’ is still so popular after nearly 12 years and continues to resonate with audiences and to that the director explained, “I suppose that period pieces may eventually enjoy a longer run than those that are immediate and only relating to our current situation. While Coco was hardly a feminist in the modern sense of the word, she did prevail in a male world, and escaped rather spectacularly her initial condition as “poor, uneducated girl”… I guess this means something to us today.”
Audrey Tatou is Coco
The famous French actress, Audrey Tatou—most famous for her role in Amelie—shines in this brilliant film. Tatou portrays Coco as a unique beauty, found not in simply the overt sense of a pretty face but through her spirit, drive, and ambition. In this film, Tatou shows a new side to herself as an actress, with this fierce performance of a character who looks upon the world and men with witty cynicism. Portraying a complicated woman who is so oftentimes the opposite of charming, Tatou still manages to reel you into caring about Coco through her stoic yet lovable performance.
Through her sheer determination, complexity, and unbothered manner, Coco is a character young girls can admire. A grounded woman who never purposefully sought out to change the world of fashion, Tatou’s exemplary performance paints a portrait of the upbringing and life that made Coco Chanel who she was. Stately is the only word to properly describe her character from the moment she commands our screen as a young orphan, nothing but her sister to call her own. Coco maintains this unconventionally noble attitude as she meets Étienne Balsan, played charmingly by Benoît Poelvoorde, a wealthy baron who reluctantly brings the determined woman into his world. Chanel provides an excellent variance to the traditional standard of women around her, and the audience watches, entranced by the lush and sophisticated world, as she pursues her dream of building an empire and being something great.
Hollywood Insider questioned Fontaine on her decision to cast Audrey Tatou as Coco – to which she firmly asserted, “Audrey was probably the professional actress that I knew of who bore the closest physical resemblance to Gabrielle Chanel in her twenties and thirties. She also had a few of Chanel’s “inside traits”. And she is a great actress… it may have been the simplest casting issue I was ever confronted to. I honestly don’t know what I would have done if Audrey had declined.”
Hollywood Insider’s CEO and Editor-in-Chief Pritan Ambroase commented on the power of Coco Chanel, Anne Fontaine’s biopic and Audrey Tatou’s portrayal of her, “Coco Chanel built this fashion empire by destroying fashion. She refused to obey rules, thus dismantling patriarchy and demanding that she be known by her words – in her case – her style. And she did all of this with her trademark silent grace. Anne Fontaine did a great job of capturing Coco’s silent yet powerful grace, she spoke definitively through her style, her fashion and her clothes. Audrey Tatou is the ONLY person that could have ever played Coco. I cannot imagine anyone else being able to play that dignity and charm either with words or unspoken conversations. In the same way, that only Marion Cotillard could have played Edith Piaf in ‘La Vie En Rose’. ‘Coco Before Chanel’ is an almost quiet film and in that Fontaine so brilliantly captures the essence of Coco and her fashion house Chanel. In a time when invention was huge, fashion was huge, hair was huge, world domination was huge – Coco fought against the HUGE – she rejected the huge costumes, the huge hair and the huge displays – she wanted silence, quiet, small, tiny, little – almost blank. Blank yet powerful. Blank yet stylish. Blank yet fashion. And that is the essence of both Coco and Chanel, a lot with little. And that is the essence of Tatou, Fontaine and ‘Coco Before Chanel’ – a lot with little.”
A Story Told Through Clothes
“Without some adornments, I’d feel poor,” Emilienne d’Alençon (Emmanuelle Devos) sighs as she accepts Coco’s offbeat ideas of dressing with less frill and fuss. With corsets and feathers, hats with brims so large one couldn’t see their face, pomp and circumstantial fashion was all the rage with Paris in the early 1900s; This style contrasts heavily against Chanel’s forgiving, androgynous wardrobe worn throughout this film, her trademark look changing the standards of feminine dress at the height of Coco’s fame. In the film, Coco introduces a plain straw hat to the infamous French stage actress Emilienne d’Alençon with the promise that she looks prettier without the extra mess on top. Chanel utilizes one’s natural beauty to accentuate her clothing, first identifying this when she states in the film, “You have a forehead, a nose, a mouth.”
At the beginning of the film, there is a moment where Chanel wears a costume that reflects the fashionable rage of the time- a frilly pink dancer’s costume stolen from a performance hall. She is chasing a dream of performing in Paris with her sister that will quickly go south, forcing her to seek other pathways to success. This is brilliant reasoning for Coco rejecting the modern fashions, subtle as it might be, and forces Chanel to think on her toes, forging her own unique style and pathway for success. Nominated for an Academy Award, a BAFTA, and César award in costume design, Coco Chanel’s plainly chic wardrobe was no coincidence for Costume Designer Catherine Leterrier and Director Anne Fontaine.
Since ‘Coco Before Chanel’ is such a human story of a woman demanding to be herself, we had to ask Anne what about Coco spoke to her as a woman and as a human being, to which she quipped, “I certainly do not compare myself to her, and even less my own achievements to hers. That being said, I am self-taught, and self-made to a certain extent. The Coco story could hardly not speak to me.”
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We see the extravagance of fashion primarily in those who surround Coco, the rich women who wore large feathered hats and dresses that cinch their waists to the point of suffocation. Coco functions as a contrast to this. Preferring to dress in what others deem ‘boyish’ clothes, primarily in muted tones such as black, white, and grey. This was not done out of some idealism view of future fashion; it was simply practical. Coco wanted to wear these clothes that had been insofar deemed as menswear. She was comfortable in pants and no corset. She did not like the lack of mobility women were forced to endure for the sake of an extravagant dress.
We see how Coco’s life experiences influenced her designs later in life, culminating in a fashion empire that still exists today. Breaking rules and unafraid of doing so, Coco was a revolutionary in the world of fashion, even before she began creating fashion for others. We watch as she expertly sews herself the clothes she wants to wear, rather than succumbing to the gaudy styles present among the rich Parisians. We see her take inspiration from all of her life experiences—the Peter Pan collar from her dresses in the orphanage, the grey plaid from her dress when she performed in a provincial music hall, the plain hat that jump-started her work as a designer—in order to create a collection of designs that truly represents her. Every aspect of the film is tied together through her future collections, shaping who she becomes and what she creates.
Fontaine reminisced with Hollywood Insider about her favorite moments from filming, “It was a happy shoot, with a few hilarious moments – like when Billy, Benoît Poelvoorde’s dog (his dog in real life), kept running in front of the camera to see his master…. actually, we didn’t manage to cut Billy entirely out of the movie, and you can catch a couple of random canine appearances outside the castle, if you watch carefully. My experience making this film was pretty much the same as on the previous ones, and those are: intense, exhausting, but very rewarding on a personal level.”
‘Coco Before Chanel’ – A Woman Chasing A Dream
In the early twentieth century of Paris, it was uncommon for a woman to seek work and recognition as avidly as Coco Chanel. Especially in regards to partners of elevated status, as was the case for Baron Balsan, it was expected for a woman to settle for a life of being beautiful trophy wives, serving as a luminescent trinket in a man’s collection. Chanel used her relationship with Balsan to her professional advantage without being exploitative of his societal status, simply utilizing the connections she had made to support her unexpected delve into fashion. As the film plays on, Chanel grows wildly restless with her vapid role in Balsan’s life, her excellence inspiring a yearning for something greater, creating a divide between the two. This, in turn, draws her closer to Arthur “Boy” Capel, played by the becoming Alessandro Nivola, who believes in her unfulfilled dreams.
Fontaine’s depiction of Chanel, her ever-changing aspirations coupled with her consistently bold personality provides a new perspective on determined, working women who are rarely portrayed in film. This character- the “Determinator,” as referred to in popular culture- has a very specific goal in mind when it comes to her dreams, as she would typically achieve them by the end of the movie. Coco Before Chanel takes that predictable cinematic trend and breathes a new life to the plot, reminding audiences that it is okay to have evolving outlooks on life. To want more than one thing, and if a part of your plan begins to curdle, moving on and finding comfort in another is another valid option. Her aspirations are summed up neatly with a quote from Mademoiselle Emilienne, “You want, but you do not know what.” Anne Fontaine’s writing of Chanel is elegantly human, where anyone with a passion for life can find themselves in her dignified reflection.
To this note, Hollywood Insider inquisitively asked Fontaine, what inspired her to make the film and she responded, “I’ve always been interested in understanding what makes people become what they are, and how they’ve managed – or not – the crucial turning points in their lives.” And when we enquired what this film means to her after all these years, she defined it as, “I believe it helped me establishing a wider reputation as a filmmaker, especially outside France… but I tend to look forward in general, and not mull that much over my past films.”
Related article: A Tribute to Great International Film Directors & Their Films
Subverting Traditional Gender Roles
Throughout the film, it is apparent that Coco Chanel was unapologetically herself, both in terms of her views on love or her sense of fashion. Unconcerned with how others would view her, she often chose to dress in what others seemed as ‘boyish’ fashions, with tailored pants, a crisp white button-down, a vest, along with a tie neatly folded into a bow—all of this sans corset.
Nowadays it is so easy to take for granted the freedom we have. Women can wear pants or blazers, or ties without having to face scrutiny by others. While we still have a long way to go in regard to equality—in fashion as well as in other areas of life—Coco Chanel was one of the first female figures to truly subvert traditional gender roles within fashion. We can give her a lot of thanks for shaping mainstream fashion culture today, as well as the more high-end fashion world.
Fontaine told us that she would like audiences to learn from this movies that, “be it this movie, or any movie, or any creative work, the stake is always to learn about yourself. I try to better know who I am upon watching other people’s films, and I hope other people feel the same need for inner exploration when they watch mine.”
Final Thoughts: Coco Before Chanel is a Regal Triumph
Widely regarded as one of the best Parisian films, Coco Before Chanel should not be dismissed by film fanatics for the crisp, feminine storyline depicting the life of Gabrielle Chanel. There was nothing ordinary about the woman who wanted to be something phenomenal, and her quiet, noble rise to the top of the fashion industry. The writing and design of this film is a cinematic experience within itself, as Anne Fontaine revolutionized the meaning of grandeur through her masterful costuming, and decadent sets.
Unfortunately for the average American viewer, subtitles are their common enemy, leaving the film often to be remade and losing the original charm and meaning of the piece. Dialogue in a language one does not understand shouldn’t be a deterrent, but instead, an exciting opportunity to immerse yourself in a culture different from your own, serving as a bridge between world views. Coco Before Chanel brings an English-speaking audience into the elegantly posh world of France in the early 1900s, complete with a lilting Parisian accent and charming French parlor songs. This film is like dining in a fine restaurant and drinking expensive champagne, it is classic and chic, living up to Coco Chanel’s eternal legacy.
While other films like to focus on a person’s greatness, the experience of getting everything you want, and creating trendsetting clothing lines, Coco Before Chanel instead focuses on a modest woman who later grew to become a fashion icon. It is refreshing to see the humble beginnings of such a larger than life figure, as well as the motivation necessary to achieve her goals. We wholeheartedly encourage anyone with even the slightest interest in fashion to watch this film. It is entirely in French, with English subtitles, and will take you on a journey through the life of a true inspiration.
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Jordyn McEvoy is an entertainment writer for Hollywood Insider with a passion for asking the tough questions in our industry today. Believing in the quality of information over scandal and rumors, she focuses on giving honestly positive reviews of films that deserve it and highlighting the true Hollywood movers and shakers. Trusting in Hollywood Insider’s dedication to unbiased reporting, she wholeheartedly agrees that the media can change the world if utilized correctly.