How Coco Before Chanel Got a Fashion Hero Right

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If The Devil Wears Prada and/or its deformed stepchild Confessions of a Shopaholic is your idea of a movie about fashion, then don't see Coco Before Chanel. You'll be sorely disappointed. Where those movies are unapologetic, orgiastic celebrations of the fashion world's outrageous hedonism, Coco (which opens today in New York and Los Angeles) is a paring down, a much-needed trimming of the superficial fat of fashion film. In fact it's less of a fashion flick than a historic sojourn to the roots of style, born in the ardent vision of a dogged opportunist. And if the movie takes itself a bit too somberly because of that, it's still a far more important view of fashion than the typical stylistas-on-steroids treatment doled out by movies and television.

This wondrous news is owing almost entirely to director Anne Fontaine, who thoroughly understands her subject. In a period movie, with its temptation to stuff the camera lens with flowing dress trains, glowing silks and dripping pearls, Fontaine's direction is decidedly un-indulgent. To capture Chanel faithfully, she recently told me, "you have to imagine and to feel what happens inside, what it was, the vulnerability, the way she looks at the world at this moment [in her life]." As if to accomplish this, Fontaine's camera spends much of its time cycling steady shots of Coco's eyes with the clothes -- an

effective, if slightly demonstrative, illustration of the path of inspiration. She couples this with panoramic views of the open countryside into which young Coco thrusts herself, a stowaway on the cruise ship of high society.

For her part, Audrey Tautou carries out Fontaine's vision faithfully. Beyond all things, Coco, née Gabrielle, was determined -- a quality Tautou plays with radioactive intensity, forcing us to shed any prior associations with her and her Amelie-esque whimsy. Specifically, her Coco is fiercely determined to succeed. To do or be what, even she doesn't seem entirely sure, except that she intends to shine conspicuously. Whatever the romantic misinterpretations perpetrated by the industry (to sell cashmere and cardigans at a 200-percent markup), fashion wasn't Coco's life's calling. It was merely her talent, and one that, as the film conveys, became an almost accidental vocation.

That's because it wasn't a penchant for snappy dressing that stewed in Coco's angry orphan's heart. It was a desire, nay, an insistence to belong comfortably to the better set. And in the beginning, fashion was merely a conduit to disturb the social standards that stifled her acceptance. Blocking Chanel's social ascendancy was a comfortably petrified high society -- the jocks and cheerleaders of the early the 20th century -- whose merits seemed to rest entirely in their dress and purses.

But the lesson of the story (with a sideways nod to the need for financial backing, provided by the one epic and tragic romance of Coco's life) is that fashion can be a source of power as much as a source of subjugation. By accepting one rule of the game, that dress can indicate a person's value, Coco found she could change things around. The irony -- that the Chanel brand name is now the varsity jacket of society's moneyed in-crowd and thus a source of social subjugation for the rest of us -- is a lesson reserved for the dandy corridors just off of 5th Avenue. Because for those of us who can't afford Chanel's Fall 09 collection, there's always her moxie, which never goes out of fashion.



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