Coco avant Chanel: The story of France’s famous mademoiselle

Showing as part of the Panorama of the European Film, currently held in Cairo, is Anne Fontaine’s film, "Coco avant Chanel."

The film about the legendary fashion icon (Coco Chanel 1883-1971) might at first seem to be a traditional celebrity biography, however the selection of memories reflect intimate details that influenced Coco’s talent, rather than her struggle to prove herself in the fashion world.
The film depicts how Coco was perceived in a society that tolerated no differences and reduced women to mere dolls, yet she became the first woman to make it in the male-dominated world of fashion, and managed to chart her own destiny with simple yet revolutionary lines.
An orphan, Coco (who is played by Audrey Tautou) and her sister used to sing all night and sew all day to make a living. However, instead of marrying ‘prince charming’, Coco ended up as his mistress, since social class segregation was too strong to defy, at least from the male perspective.
From the first scene, Tautou mesmerizes with her acting skills. Deviating from her role as the cute, puzzled French girl on an endless quest for the truth in Amelie, here she plays the role of a young, ambitious girl who carries with her persistence and dignity even as another man’s mistress. Like Coco’s designs, the film explores fresh patterns of relationships where a human tint adores all characters rather than portraying a typical love triangle: where love/hate, good/bad and jealousy are dominant character flaws.

The storyline is simple and elegant just like Coco’s designs, inspired by her modest background and transformed into an international, elegant classic look. The typical plain orphanage uniform with small rounded collar (also known as a peter-pan collar), the blue striped loose shirts, a typical fisherman’s outfit, and the boxy, boyish suits, now hang in topnotch boutiques and are worn only by those who can afford the price of the double CC logo. The way Coco adapted practical and comfortable designs from men’s pants and shirts was revolutionary and a leap away from the tight-fitting corsets and long dresses with petticoats of the time.

Towards its end, the film moves away from a chronological sequence of events. From the scene of a fatal accident involving Coco’s lover, silence prevails, through to the end of the movie and the beginning of her career as a fashion designer. Scenes that focus on the way Coco outlined her designs and her perseverance while drawing her the designs for cutting are quite inspirational. The last scene (her first fashion show), in which her memories are illustrated in her glamorous designs, and vertically striped mirrors reflect the heartbreak and loneliness that shadow the glamor of fame, is quite touching.

In a nutshell, this film manages to tell mademoiselle Chanel’s life story with style. It is a story of the woman who was behind the designs that are seen today as synonyms for grace and elegance, almost 40 years after her death.




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