August 19, 2009

Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.

Today, 126 years ago, Coco Chanel was born therefore a wonderful reason to discover the film Coco Avant Chanel. It's like stepping into a still life anno 1900.

Before you proceed reading, scroll down and watch the video. It is a compilation of all the ads a French insurance company has done. One ad in particular (begins 3:06 ), demonstrates in quite a whimsical way, how this film works. The music by Shostakovich, Jazz Suite Nr. 2, evokes the era in a very succinct manner.

The title reveals the content. We see what Coco's life was like before she became 'Coco Chanel'. Only at the very end do we see her presiding over a defilé, in her couture shop. A bit incongruous as the models look like they time-traveled from Paris 2009 to Paris 1921. Bit of a visual jolt. Super skinny models back then? I don´t think so.

Happily, I can assure you, the other 3/4 of the film no jolts, just a lovely breeze through the early 1900's.

"How old are you?" asks the future keeper of this future mistress, Monsieur Etienne Balsan.
"What does it matter. 16 or 25? I am old when I am bored. " she answers curtly. This economy of words ultimately translate into her fashion sense - less is more - or as she said: "Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance. "

A natural recluse, sociable out of necessity. The dichotomy of Coco Chanel.

She and her sister grew up in an orphanage. Forever waiting for Papa to come visit. Her father's neglect, which she must have perceived as shameful, induced her to invent stories about a childhood less impoverished, more adventuresome, often changing her story and her age.

So, we follow Coco, seamstress by day, moonlighting as a kind of chorus girl/vaudevillian singer by night. A two-woman show with her sister. When her sister succumbs to the charms of a fabulously wealthy noble, the its-only-me-and-I-can't-really-sing-that-well act didn´t work, despite Coco admirerer Monsieur Balsan's wide network of connections. Auditions at various nightclubs did not result in an engagement as the latest sensation in gay Paris. Soon, Monsieur le Baron retires to his estates outside of Paris. Taking leave of Coco, in his mind, pretty much forever.

We never know why, but one day, Coco decides to visit Baron Etienne Balsan at his ostentatious residence in the country. An incorrigible bachelor, he who does not understand the meaning of the word "work". Horses and wild parties occupy most of his time. Although le Baron initially grants Coco leave to stay for two days, the two-day sojourn turns into weeks, months. We never find out how long she resides there.  I suppose it doesn´t matter, as the story is not a linear timeline of events but more a depiction of travels of Coco's mind and heart we witness. Always with quiet determination. I suspect she knows precisely what she does not want. While wandering down that road, Coco discovers where her talents lie, leading her to a pragmatic passion for doing well, enabling her to gain a much desired independence in the process.

Audrey Tatou as the steadfast implacable Coco waltzes effortlessly through most of the film. Benoit Poelvoode as the lonely, aging dandy, Etienne Balson, her most jovial keeper and companion is wonderful as well. Coco's stubbornness and her rogue modes tolerated like a father tolerates his unruly daughter. Only when she finally decides to leave him, on the arm of the rather uncharmingly boorish Boy Chavel (played by the equally uncharming Alessandro Nivola) does Balsan engage us and attain our sympathy. A tragic figure in a nuanced performance.

The film starts to stumble and sputter, like a model T running out of gas, once Coco returns to Paris. We witness her success, which is weird, since the film is called "Coco before Chanel". So uncertain what the point of that addendum is.

I am not sure how much of a conscious mission she was actually on - to free women from the constraints of the corset - but statements like the below are certainly effective to further propel and sustain her undeniably legendary status:

"I gave women a sense of freedom; I gave them back their bodies: bodies that were drenched in sweat, due to fashion's finery, lace, corsets, underclothes, padding"

Her oeuvre was definitely revolutionary. I knew nothing about her life prior to this film. So all my impressions of her character are derived solely from this film. And leaves one to wonder, to imagine. Coco did what was right for Coco, what she liked, and along the way, realized what a stir she made, using the momentum to further her cause. That was certainly intentional. I suspect it didn´t start out that way.

It was a lovely trip. After seeing the film, more than ever do I realize how fitting this quote is, which I thought might fit long before seeing the film:

"Early in life she had discovered the important truth that nothing looks so like innocence as an indiscretion; and by a series of reckless escapades, she had acquired all the privileges of a personality."
Oscar Wilde.

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