Coco Avant Chanel, with Audrey Tautou as the titular role
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, where Anna Mouglalis portrays the fashion dynamo
I had the pleasure of watching Coco Avant Chanel (known as Coco Before Chanel here in the States) and Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky back-to-back the other night. If you’re going to do an evening with Coco biopics, this is the order to do them in. Subject-wise, the stories overlapped for just three minutes. C Avant C ended after the death of Coco’s lifelong love Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel in an automobile accident in 1919. CC&IS picks up right after that – Capel is only in the film briefly, then the narrative jumps forward seven years to the aftermath of his death, where Chanel was described to be the only woman who could make grief look chic.
Not only do the films each examine different eras in the fashion titan’s life, but, through the narrative, two decidedly very different women emerge.
In Coco Avant Chanel, Audrey Tautou plays the young, feisty gamine Gabrielle Chanel, nicknamed ‘Coco’ by her lover after the song she sings with her sister in their cabaret act. Tautou’s Coco is a hardworking, strategic young woman who didn’t know quite what she wanted – except to move beyond the memories of her father’s abandonment of her at an orphanage during her early years and her job as a seamstress. She engages in an affair with a baron, Etienne Balsan, whose high-profile friends gives her an entrée into French society as well as a posh pad to stay at. Balsan never comes off in the film as having the deep desire for Coco that Boy Capel does, but it is obvious that he had deep affection for her.
While staying at Balsan’s mansion, Chanel continues her hobby of making hats, gifting them to various girl friends and mistresses who stop by the Balsan home. It is Boy Capel who encourages Coco to take her talent as a hat-maker beyond just a hobby – he believes that she could be a real force in the fashion world. His encouragement allowed Coco to pursue a career, and his leisurely style of dress – relaxed suits and jersey shirts – were greatly influential upon Chanel’s early masculine womenswear designs. As Coco the designer finds great success in Paris, tragedy strikes when Capel dies unexpectedly. The last images of Coco in the film are of a heartbroken woman, left without her love but with the thriving business that he inspired her to create.
In Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, Coco Chanel has already found success in the fashion world. When she invites Stravinsky and his family to stay with her at her country home, she is independently wealthy. She is not the romantic young girl with designs on becoming an actress like in Tautou’s depiction; the woman that Anna Mouglalis portrays is icy, beautiful, and self-assured almost to the point of callousness. When she embarks on an affair with Stravinsky, she denies herself the passion that previous film’s dynamic between Capel and Chanel (or even she and Balsan, for that matter). She wants what she wants – and, in that particular case, she wanted to be with the man who created such tremendous music that she admired. Never mind that Stravinsky’s wife, who is dying of consumption, and children are in the next room. The affair serves a greater creative purpose, the film seems to say – borne out of their illicit relationship is the creation of Chanel No. 5 and Stravinsky’s experimentation with freer form and Neoclassicism.
If Coco at the end of C Avant C had become hardened because of Capel’s death, the austerity that she possesses in CC&IS is unwavering. It is almost as though she is playing a game – she is an actress within her own world and she can never be off her cue. The poise that she maintains in this film is almost frightening. She seems unreal, like an unfinished character in a Fitzgerald novel; a femme fatale who was only given a short treatment. I finished the movie feeling (and understanding) less about the fashion great than when I started.
But maybe that’s the appeal - and the purpose. The Chanel brand has created a permanent air of mystery around itself – a certain French sophistication where only those in the know truly know. To deconstruct the woman at the helm of the brand would be to turn the Chanel world into something comprehendible to anyone who was willing to dedicate two hours of their life to a movie. Honestly, I can’t imagine anything worse than if a young university student like I felt like I could understand and relate to Coco Chanel. No, Coco was in a league all her own.