By Ray Pride
A small girl’s abandoned by her father. It’s the early part of the twentieth century. The child small with unblinking eyes, large, dark, liquid. Taken behind the stone walls of an orphanage, in a corridor she glimpses nuns: white wimples, starch crease strong above black cotton dresses, surprising simplicity, elegance, timeless style.
It’s only the opening of French writer-director Anne Fontaine’s ninth feature, and that straightforward glimpse announces that “Coco Before Chanel” will be clear-eyed and suggestive, sowing the seeds of the seamstress to be in images and not speech. Jobs, a relationship of convenience with an older man, meeting a younger man called “Boy” who is the first to believe in her: this is the fabric of the plot. Images? Fingers, scissors, skills: details stream before her gaze, before our eyes, a muddy river of couture in need of dredging.
The quiet current beneath the story, beneath the pout-mouthed performance of Audrey Tautou and a strong supporting cast, is about shedding adornment, making modern, finding shapeliness hidden beneath shape. You need “a good sense of distaste,” someone jokes, but epigrams and predictive passages of chat are limited. “Have you ever been in love?” “It never made me happy.” How do you make a film about a known figure that is preordained, without the film becoming overly, overtly prefigured?
Fontaine makes use of sound and space, such as a close-up on Coco’s face as two horses whinny: done quietly enough it’s emblematic rather than foolish. Coltish is as coltish does. Alexandre Deplat’s score is amiable, announcing events to come only once or twice. Sounds are mostly wind in the trees, the tick of embers turning, Coco swooped to bed, her giggles gorgeously ugly.
“Charming but lacking in frivolity” is a slight she does not take, wandering the older man’s house with hair electric, long and loose, as she sways in translucent, boxy but flowing men’s cream pajamas. Coco, the character, tosses elements with startling vigor, using her small frame as her own mannequin, the effect in the scenes, in that historical moment as startling as the contemporary teenagers of Tokyo street fashion called “fruits.” Coco blooms in boyish garb, her crushed black hats and huge cuffs suggesting a tiny Nick Cave avant le letter.
There is a whiff of pre-war decadence at foolish house parties, distant sonar bouncing off Renoir’s “Rules of the Game.” But the patient lilt of the camerawork, the quiet tale-telling, are more prominent choices than the suggestion of a larger, troubled world. There is a shot to match the opening, when she and Boy go to the seaside and he approaches the beach, which teems with ladies encased in froufrou and feather and ormolu and against the line of misty horizon and the sea of cream-draped ladies is a small dark figure center-frame. She’s this little, dapper, modern figure; she literally stands out in a crowd. “Yes! When she looks at the hats of the women and she says we are in a pastry shop! Yes, yes,” Fontaine told me recently.
Only after seeing “Coco” did I realize Fontaine used multiple cameras. “Two or sometimes three. But two on many scenes, when they have breakfast, a picnic, on the first scene when she meets Boy and they are around a table. The two cameras when there were more than two or three characters on screen was a way to let the actors move more freely than usual than in a period setting. It was the first time I used two cameras together. Because before I did not have the money to do it! But it was a way to be very supple. Flexible. Alive. We suspended camera B, we had one fixed camera, and the other would hang on a kind of bungee and it makes for little movements. What’s awful on a period movie is that it’s difficult to be fresh and alive because you construct everything. You have to think of everything, it’s not real, you have to do it beforehand, the whole set’s always built. It’s very subtle, no? It’s only a sensation inside. It’s like her. She’s not completely… She’s not stabilized. There’s suspense because she doesn’t know what’s next in her life. This instability, it was a way to introduce it very subtly. You can feel it, marginally, but not really detect it.” It’s different than action scenes. “Action scenes! Of course. Here? It’s a little more oblique.”
At the end, an older Chanel sits on the staircase of her workshop, the actual staircase with the same shards of mirror that Coco had designed in order to observe without being seen, and a parade of models cascade past her, wearing clothing from all eras of her many decades. The models look modern, but the effect is to suggest that the craft, the style, is timeless, moving forward, borne by the weight of its past. “It was a curse and a blessing at the same time. It’s the only scene that was controlled by the house of Chanel. The costumes were so thin that they want to choose the models and it’s for that reason they are so close to today. I would do more of a mixture of models, more subtle, but I had to take this. I was not very happy. I was furious when I discovered this! Oh, this one is anorexic! I like women thin, but this is something people remark because the dresses are all from the conservatory of Chanel. But it [works] because the sequence is more metaphoric of this woman, this French icon, between her future and her past and today. The pajamas, the trousers, the dresses: this is fashion today. I agree with your interpretation, but because I choose [to make the scene] like that? No!”
“Coco Before Chanel” opens Friday at Landmark Century.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.