Sunday, November 15, 2009

Coco Avant Chanel...a triumph of style and substance

Ok, I freely admit it, I'm a fashion victim. I couldn't wait to see this film about the life of couturier and fashion icon Coco Chanel, made in France with the assistance of the house of Chanel.

An orphan trained to sew by nuns, Chanel was ambitious and talented with her voice and with a needle. However she lived in an era when few women worked: most were kept. Career options: seamstress, mistress, dancer or actress were seen as a last recourse for impoverished or disgraced girls and widows. Marriage was the only respectable occupation outside a convent. Thus, disposition rather than ability ensured success or failure. Acquiescence, beauty and charm were regarded a woman's chief's virtues.

Coco is played to perfection by Audrey Tantou, (Amelie). The film is essentially a character study and Tantou's performance is stunning. Chanel is willfully eccentric, proud, stubborn, bad tempered and forthright to the point of rudeness. Tantou makes a damaged and difficult woman not only compelling but entirely sympathetic.

We meet Chanel in her early 20s, trying to figure out who she is and how she can possibly achieve her ambition of escaping a life of grinding poverty and obscurity and become rich, respected and famous.

Like"Bright Star" "Coco Avant Chanel" attempts to suggest visually, the tropes and incidents that informed the aesthetic of the artist Chanel became. Much of the film is an is an amble seen through Chanel's eyes. Her gaze directs us along the marble halls of a wealthy older man she's sleeping with and takes us through the demi-monde of the actresses and industrialists he entertains on his estate, at the racetrack and at the theatre. It is a beautiful film, shot in a muted palette at a languid pace, portraying the decadence and elitism Chanel rebelled against.

If you're after an action picture's endless plot turns, this is not likely to be your cup of coffee. If you're interested in watching a beautifully drawn portrayal of a brittle and brilliant iconoclast and her time, you're in for a treat.

Chanel was a a throughly modern woman who came of age on the eve of the Great War. She revolutionized not only women's dress but what it was possible for a woman to do in the fashion business. She was the first female couturier with a house that bears her name to this day. She won for herself the respect and freedoms; financial, aesthetic and social that were, at the time, only accorded men.

Ladies, the next time you slide into a black jersey dress you can actually eat dinner in or a two piece skirt suit with a box jacket and knee length skirt you can actually walk in, thank the chain-smoking, irritating and utterly brilliant woman who rose from an orphanage to international renown by replacing corsets, clutter and constraint with sober, elegant fluid clothes for working women.

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