Monday, October 18, 2010

Coco Before Chanel (Coco Avant Chanel) -- fashion and freedom

Director: Anne Fontaine, 2009. (PG-13)

Chanel conjures up visions of beautiful clothes and the scents of aromatic perfumes. Yet Coco Before Chanel tells the rags-to-rich-dresses story of how Gabrielle Chanel (Audrey Toutou, Amelie) became Coco Chanel, a fashionista in charge of a vast empire. More than this, it focuses on the web of three relationships as they interweave together and have an impact on Coco.

Coco's story starts in poor and obscure beginnings. We first see her at the back of a farmer's horse-drawn cart with her older sister, Adrienne, en route to an orphanage. It is the late 19th century and her father is depositing these two girls with the nuns. He never returns. Each week Gabrielle will go with the nuns at visiting time, hoping to see her father again, but to no avail. Surrounded by other orphans and the black-garbed nuns, she is isolated from love, lost and lonely.

The story moves ahead several years to find the two sisters working in a provincial bar. While the bustier ladies of the night are selling themselves to the drunken men present, Gabrielle and Adrienne hold down two jobs there: they are seamstresses, sewing and fixing the prostitutes' dresses, and also they sing cabaret, a song about their dog Coco. It is from this song that Gabrielle gets her nickname.

When Adrienne connects with a baron from Paris, he woos her and promises to wed her. She departs with him, leaving Coco alone. For a young woman in France in that era, this was frightening. But unlike most women of that time, she took matters into her own hands and determined to carve out her own future.

Having won the attention of an older race horse owner and socialite, Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), she turns up at his country home outside of Paris. She concocts a story about visiting her sister, and he accepts it and her, and lets her stay for two days. But when the time is up, she agrees to become live-in mistress.

It is access to his home and friends that gives her the opportunities she needs. She is a capable seamstress, and has an eye for fashion. She is willing to break traditions and norms, and carve out new paradigms.

She begins by making simple straw hats for a female actress friend of Balsan's. Then she starts making clothes for herself using whatever she can find, including some of Balsan's shirts. Her clothing shows a marked simplicity and dampened masculinity compared to the frilly dresses of the Parisian ladies.
Along the way, she meets Arthur 'Boy' Capel (Alessandro Nivola, Junebug), a key business partner of Balsan's. An Englishman fluent in French, Boy is decades younger than Balsan and a contemporary of Coco's. And for the first time Coco falls in love. Eschewing the wild and drunken orgies that Balsan throws for his friends, she slips away with Boy. It is this complicated set of triangular relationships that forms the heart of the film.

In her work as well as in her life, Coco is searching for freedom and love. Abandoned by her father and constrained by the nuns, she expresses her desire for independence. Women of her day wore tightly corsetted dresses. Coco, on the other hand, forewent with the corsets. Her clothing was masculine at times, and when it was feminine it was simple and unconstrictive.  A key scene shows her dancing with Boy in a casino ballroom. The ladies in the other couples surrounding them have long, white corsetted gowns. Coco, on the other hand, has a simple black dress, a forerunner of the elegant cocktail dress that is so flexible and fashionable.

Freedom is a trait we all want. When we have experienced the suffcocating constrictions of rules, social and societal, we desire to be free, to live apart from these. For most of us this remains a dream. Not so for  Coco. Yet, there is the freedom we all seek in living above the law, above a litany of rules. This is the freedom of living in grace and by grace (Eph. 2:8). When we place our faith in Jesus and choose to live life by following him, we find that laws fade and grace prevails. This is true freedom (Rom. 8:21).

Love is a gift we all desire. Coco wanted it but found it only later in life. Her relationship with Balsan is a complicated tension of mixed motivations. Ethically, she is not much more than the common prostitutes she sewed for. Their relationship begins as a commercial enterprise, yet there is a love that lies below, even though Balsan will not take her as wife. Both find the relationship beneficial. Coco gains financial security as well as a form of love and acceptance. Balsan, too, gets more than just a fling; he becomes emotionally engaged with his young mistress. This becomes clear when Boy enters the picture and jealousy arises. Boy's relationship with Coco also becomes convoluted, but for other reasons.

We all want and need love. When we lose it and grow up without it, we find an emptiness that needs to be filled. We can look to others to fill that hole, and if we find the right person this hole will be partially filled. We will find a marriage partner that will be with us for a lifetime, not a lover that will be with us until one of us gets tired. Yet, even the true marriage partner cannot provide enough love to completely satisfy our longings. That role, of true-love giver, falls to God. He wants to pour out an unending amount of infinite love for us (Rom. 8:38-39). He has shown us the depth of his love in his son, Jesus (Jn. 3:16), and now waits for us like the prodigal's father (Lk. 15:15-32). Will we recognize our need and come to the one who can meet it? Or will we be like Coco, and search after finite love from fickle humans?
Coco deconstructed the gowns and hats of her time and created new masterpieces in her own style. Having been abandoned, she was determined to fend for herself and control her own destiny. The latter part of the film shows her achieving this goal, as she leaves Balsan and moves to Paris to start her own store of hat-making and dress-designing. The over-the-top designs of her contemporaries give way to the simplicity and elegance of her black and white creations. The roots of her designs can be traced back to the simple robes of the nuns of her youth.

Coco Before Chanel engages in a slow and thoughtful way, capturing the gaudy and extravagant styles of the French. This period piece shines when it focuses on the relationships and the love story, but falters when it focuses on Coco alone. When the end comes, it is abrupt and leaves us wondering how Coco actually became Chanel and what happened afterwards. We sense that Coco lived and died an empty and lonely woman, who had turned fashion upside down and sewn her name in history. But at what cost.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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