Coco Before Chanel (2010)

Reviewer: Shannon H.


Before there was Calvin Klein, Kenneth Cole, Gianni Versace, Christian Dior, and Ralph Lauren, there was Coco Chanel. People have heard of her because, like all the other men mentioned previously, she was a fashion designer. Some people have worn her fragrance, Chanel No. 5. Some have even worn her clothing and carried purses and handbags with her initials on them. This film is about Coco Chanel before her multi-decade career in fashion design.


It opens with a brief glimpse into Coco’s childhood. Known as Gabrielle, she and her sister Adrienne are dropped off at a Catholic orphanage by their father. Every Sunday, Gabrielle waits for her father to visit but he never shows up. When Gabrielle (Audrey Tautou) is 25, she and her sister (Marie Gillain) work as seamstresses and perform as cabaret singers by night; this is where she earns her nickname, “Coco.” Their singing catches the attention of a rich, textile company owner, Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde). He offers to get the girls auditions to perform in Paris in a theater, but before they are set to audition, Coco’s sister Adrienne chooses instead to marry a rich aristocrat. Coco auditions alone and fails miserably.


Later, Coco joins Balsan at his estate and becomes his “secret” mistress. She then gains access to the upper echelons of French society, hobnobbing with all sorts of individuals, including stage actress Emilienne d’Alencon (Emmanuelle Devos), who designs hats for her performances. She also notices how so many upper-crust French women wear corsets that leave them unable to breathe. Coco is also dismayed at the fancy jewelry they wear, commenting to a friend that they look like decorated pastries. Still, her life lacks fulfillment as she spends each night remaining invisible to Balsan’s friends as he throws lavish parties and then gives herself to him. Eventually, she’s included in his social circle but refuses to wear a gaudy dress he buys for her, preferring to wear a dress she designed herself.


Aside from Balsan, Coco finds herself attracted to his best friend, English businessman, Captain Arthur Capel, also known as “Boy” (Alessandro Nivola). Capel asks Balsan permission to take Coco with him for a couple of days and the two of them have a grand old time visiting the sea, dancing, going to parties, and making love. This allows Coco to get a glimpse of current fashion and ideas for making hats. She also gets the inspiration to incorporate “jersey” clothing into her designs since Capel wore that kind of clothing on a regular basis. Things take a turn for the worse when someone close to Coco is involved in a car accident...


Fortunately, there is no violent content, and profanity is limited to a couple uses of bast*** and “whore.” But sexual content completely encompasses this film although none of it is graphic. There are references to prostitutes who are seen wearing underwear and corsets; other women wear revealing clothing. There are references to sex, virginity, the size of men's private parts, and sleeping with people for financial gain and access to high society and power. A woman seduces a man; she undoes the straps of her dress (her cleavage is seen) and the two passionately kiss. It is implied she becomes the mistress of two different men; one of them is married. A drunken man looks up a woman’s dress at a costume party; a man starts to undress a woman while seducing her (no nudity -- this happens several times). There is one sex scene in the back of a car that includes motion. (he is shirtless; nothing else is seen except for motion). A woman confides to a man that her father cheated on her mother; in the same scene, she admits that she’d rather be a mistress than married. People drink wine and champagne and smoke constantly.


According to the DVD commentary, Coco Chanel is seen as a feminist of sorts, refusing to marry and being her own free spirit. The free-spirited Coco chose to have an affair with a few different men, including one that was married. She prefers to be a mistress because she can be free to be successful in life with no real commitment instead of being a wife tied to housework and children. While there is nothing wrong with a woman being single and financially successful (Oprah Winfrey is a great example), especially during a time when women were limited to meager odd jobs, there is a problem with sleeping around. The Bible is clear that adultery is wrong. Self-made businesspeople are admirable but extramarital affairs aren’t. Even though times were different then, the idea of being in dual relationships didn’t sit well with me.


The good thing about Coco Before Chanel is that it carries itself as a film. Fans of period film fashion will love it because it gives the audience a glimpse of Edwardian attire and how Coco Chanel “rebelled” against it in favor of what we would call “the flapper” look. I really loved the fashion aspect of this movie and it was fun to see how Coco could turn an ordinary piece of fabric and a men’s undershirt into a casual dress with a modern feel to it. Despite the rich scenery and the historic detail, the film is plagued with sexual undertones and Christian audiences should be wary when watching the movie.

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