Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Coco Before Chanel

(Coco avant Chanel, France, 2009)

Coco is right up there with Édith Piaf among the most famous French women. Hell, right up there with Joan of Arc. She had a fascinating life, and this movie tackles only the early years. Some have objected to this, because it ignores her most infamous period, during the occupation of France, when she was the mistress of a German officer and Nazi spy. I read just a little about this, and found it confusing. The French wanted to try her as a collaborator, but were talked out of it by the British royal family. And yet she was arrested by the Gestapo as a British spy. (All this according to Wikipedia, so I don’t vouch for its accuracy.) She never married, but was the mistress of or had affairs with a large number of prominent men. Maybe not as many as Alma Maria Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel, about whom Tom Lehrer sang, but a lot, including Igor Stravinsky.

This movie was written, directed, and produced by women. In fact, the most important job filled by a man was, ironically, the costume designer. But it makes sense. I doubt he had much to do with the clothes designed by Chanel; that would be sacrilege. But there were hundreds and hundreds of costumes in the ornate and overdone style of the Victorian and Edwardian era that had to be made. Women’s clothes then were horrible, and could cause actual physical injury. Women frequently fainted because of too-tight corsets. Billions of birds were slaughtered for hat plumes. Coco changed all that, made clothes simpler. It’s something I never thought of, but I can see how liberating that must have been. In the DVD extras, one of the actresses says it took her two hours every day to get into her costume and make-up and have her hair done, and that was with two dressers.

The movie itself was strangely unmoving to me. Coco was certainly a genius, but I don’t think she was a very nice person. Her childhood poverty drove her, made her always look out for number one. We see how enchanting she was to various men, but I wasn’t enchanted, despite the fact that I sincerely love Audrey Tautou.