Last week I went to see Coco Before Chanel. It didn't get fantastic reviews, but I was having one of those days where I just needed to hear French spoken and see pretty dresses, and on those counts, it satisfied. While a less ambitious movie than La Vie En Rose (the last biopic I saw about a Great French Woman) it was also less frustrating--I think biographical movies work better when they focus on a short period of the person's life, rather than going birth-to-death.
And there is one moment that is truly great cinema. You almost don't need the rest of the movie; this one shot says it all. Coco goes dancing at a seaside casino, where all of the other women are dressed in Edwardian finery: white and ivory fabrics, S-bend corsets, lots of lace and ruffles and delicate little details. Coco has been complaining about this style of dress for the whole movie, even though, to our modern eyes, it has its charm: the dresses are luxurious and beautifully made, and it pleases the eye to see a whole roomful of women dressed in similar fashions, waltzing with tuxedoed swains. But as the camera zooms in on Coco, the problem with all the other women's clothes suddenly becomes clear. It's not that they are ugly, it's that they are hopelessly old-fashioned. For Coco is wearing the simplest little black evening gown, sleeveless and slender, and she puts the others to shame. And you could wear this dress to a party in 2009 and still be the chicest woman in the room--long after the other women's dresses have been relegated to Halloween and masquerades.
The movie shows that Chanel's main innovation was to take inspiration from men's clothing: tweed trousers and fisherman jerseys and a flat black straw hat (the item that brings her her first success, but I thought it looked shabby and awkward). Thinking about this afterward, I was reminded of another French movie heroine: Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) in Jules and Jim. The two movies take place in the same time period, and they share the theme of a young woman frustrated with the limitations her society places on her, and torn between two men. Coco, of course, manages to become self-actualized; Catherine only self-destructs.
But it was the similar fashions that made me connect these two characters, and wonder if the costume designer of Jules and Jim had taken inspiration from early Chanel designs when creating Catherine's wardrobe.
Both Coco and Catherine favor loose, non-constricting clothing to match their free-spirited personalities (Catherine may be a femme fatale, but she doesn't dress like one). They are both fond of a classic striped jersey...
...or a nice plaid...
...and of course, they both dress up in men's clothes, enjoying the freedom they are otherwise denied.
I wonder how the young Jeanne Moreau would have been in the role of Coco Chanel? My French friend, Sophie, said she's avoiding Coco Before Chanel because she thinks Audrey Tautou is absolutely the wrong actress for the role. She says I should look out for another Chanel movie that is being released soon, called Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, starring Anna Mouglalis. I am not familiar with Mouglalis' work, but Sophie assures me that she's virtually a Chanel look-alike and will do an excellent job.