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Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, March 2010

One might rightly question a review of a film about a fashion designer in the pages of Fanfare, but keep in mind that Chanel the woman was very close to Igor Stravinsky for more than a decade (the composer even proposed leaving his wife to marry her), that she gave Serge Diaghilev a sizeable check that allowed him to stage Le sacre du printemps, and that her fashions were either used directly or influenced the work of others for ballet and opera productions throughout the 1920s. Of course, this superb film covers her entire life and career, much of which was quite separate from music, but in a sense Chanel’s fashions were the clothing equivalent of modern music, clean and lean in line and design, their occasional frills and furbelows a pastiche of the Baroque with her usual sportswear look.

The core of this film consists of three outstanding pieces of footage: an extremely rare color film of fashion models of the 1920s showing off the designs, a French TV interview with the woman herself late in life, and a rather extensive but extremely interesting narrative by Karl Lagerfeld, who took over the House of Chanel in 1983 as chief designer and both updated and revitalized the classic Chanel look. Within the latter footage are clips of modern—day Chanel yearly showings and backstage footage of Lagerfeld showing off some simply incredible hand embroidery and chain stitching (each dress taking over two thousand hours to create) on some high—couture pieces. These simply must be seen to be believed.

Chanel is rightly credited with several innovations, particularly adding multiple pockets to skirts and jackets and appropriating loose—fitting menswear for feminine use, but as Lagerfeld reminds us, some of her ideas were “in the air” at the time and used by several contemporary designers. Chanel of the 1930s, when she was competing head to head with Schiaparelli, is nowadays scarcely recognized as what we consider classic Chanel; her dresses of the period are overdone and nearly always designed for eveningwear rather than everyday wear. But then came eight years of complete silence, followed by her first postwar collection which was deemed a thudding failure, only to be followed a year later with a collection that caught on in the United States like wildfire. Suddenly, Chanel was relevant, back on the map, and distilling her decades of experience into a look that millions of women wanted as part of their own.

The Chanel interview is interesting because of its mixture of good and bad qualities that we see in her. On the good side, her strength, independence, sharp business sense, and good sound judgment in assessing what women wanted to wear; on the bad, the firm belief that everything she did was right and only she was right, refusal to admit mistakes, and an insistence on imposing her ideas on a society that thought differently. At one point she damns miniskirts by saying, “I don’t know of any men who like them!” Ummm, honey, were you asking the right guys? Or just those who worked with you in the industry?

For anyone who likes Chanel, modern fashion, or would like to learn of her association with Stravinsky et al., highly recommended.

Greg Altum, February 2010

Did you all catch the British Academy Awards last Sunday? The Best Picture winner was “The Hurt Locker.” Naturally, someone must have taken my Jan. 24 column—praising “The Hurt Locker”—and got it to those British folks and it surely influenced their voting.

Okay, maybe that didn’t happen. I did notice, however, that “Coco Before Chanel” also got some nominations (four in all). And it has also received an Oscar nomination for Costume Design. And since it just came out on DVD and Blu—Ray, this writer thought he would check it out.

Coco Chanel is of course the French woman who started the fragrance and fashions known as Chanel. She is considered one of the most influential women of the 20th century. I once read she associated with a German officer during World War II (she did) and I thought that would be in the movie.

It’s not, actually. And while that makes the movie quieter than it could have been, it also makes for something refreshingly intelligent and quiet. I’d say it’s also pretty steady and cautious. Early on, we see the child Coco lying in the back of a coach leaving the Oba zon Orphanage in 1895 (she was born in August 1883). The whole movie seems to move as steady and cautious as that coach.

Audrey Tautou—best known for the 2001 film “Amelie—plays Chanel. She is quite convincing as the orphan who learns first hand what the world can do before learning how to put it in her hands. Most of her acting seems to be in her face and those big, always probing eyes.

The movie relies heavily on the dialogue, and that keeps the viewer quite involved. “I watched for my father every Sunday,” Chanel says. “He never came back.” A lot of supposed movie biographies really fail to give simple biographical detail, but this is not one of them.

Chanel is a singer with her sister Etienne, played very well by Marie Gillain (who starred in the pleasant 1991 film “My Father the Hero”). Coco then becomes the mistress of Etienne Balsan, played busily by Benoit Poelvoorde (he was in the popular “Man Bites Dog”). She also begins a relationship with Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola). Her “sparring” with those two gentlemen is the crux of the movie.

But then again, we see Chanel constantly surrounded by beautiful things. She rides horses and lives in a big beautiful house. In one kitchen scene, the master Balsan asks, “Any raspberry jam left?” That seems to show the attention paid to detail. And it can make a person hungry.

During a picnic, we hear Etienne say of her sister Coco, “She’s charming but lacking in frivolity.”

The movie as a whole is not, however. There is always a little singing or art or theatre that comes along to keep things lively. We really watch the main character grow. In a pivotal scene, she walks along the beach, beginning to understand her independence.

More pivotal things happen at the end to make this a fine film. Not all of them happy, however, by a long shot. And for the final note we see Chanel fulfill her destiny as a fashion designer (she died in January 1971).

It would appear the movie was made to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Chanel Company. Also coming up is a new biography, “Coco Chanel: A Life” by Justine Picardie (It Books). Also recommended is the documentary DVD “Chanel, Chanel” (from Arthaus Musik).

It is possible women would appreciate “Coco Before Chanel” more than men. Movies don’t get much prettier or cleaner.

On the other hand, we see how Coco Chanel was like all of us in the long run, having to make our mark in a world that can either lead or be led.

John Grassi
PopMatters, December 2009

To understand Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s impact on the fashion world, one must begin with the haute couture universe of the early 20th century, a universe that Chanel would eventually overthrow. Hershon & Guerra’s documentary Chanel Chanel describes the ‘Belle Époque’ style that was dominant before the rise of Chanel (Narration by Diane Quick):

Being little more than visible manifestations of their husband’s wealth, women were treated like objects of art, with no concern for their own comfort or needs, their natural body shapes exaggerated through the use of corsets, long heavy skirts and tight-fitting shoes. The effect of these fashions was to make women totally dependent creatures, unable to dress or undress or even step off a curb without the assistance of a husband or maid.

At the time, Chanel worked as a shop clerk and seamstress in Paris. Her lover and patron, Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, was so impressed by Chanel’s bold sense of style that he financed her first business venture, a small millinery shop.

Chanel’s initial breakthrough was in hat design. Belle Époque hats were typically ostentatious and enormous, piled high with flowers and feathers. Chanel remarked: “How can the brain function under those things?”

Chanel’s hats were simple but elegant, including one popular design inspired by a sailor’s cap. The beautiful actress Gabrielle Dorziat and the opera star Marthe Davelli were both photographed wearing Chanel hats, resulting in high-profile publicity for the young designer.

Chanel’s next innovation was in swimwear. As Belle Époque followers strolled the beach covered from head-to-toe, Chanel designed light, loose-fitting sportswear, perfect for resort living. Chanel’s work was nothing short of liberating, freeing women from an anachronistic, impractical, and repressed style.

The documentary Chanel, Chanel uses photo stills of the Belle Époque era and compares them to Chanel’s groundbreaking designs. Interspersed throughout are interview segments with an elderly Chanel, still vital and articulate, at times brilliant.

As women entered the workforce in record numbers during World War I, Chanel released a new collection, including dresses that discarded the corset and raised the hemline above the ankle. Chanel described the time: “A world was dying while another was being born. I was there, opportunity came forward, and I took it.”

After the death of Boy Capel, Chanel took a new lover, the Russian duke Dimitri Pavlovich. Chanel’s association with Russian aristocracy influenced her work, as she began incorporating Siberian fur—sable, ermine, and mink into her designs. Impressed by the intricate embroidery of Russian couture, Chanel began hiring Russian émigrés into her fashion houses.

Chanel Chanel succeeds in showing the progression of Chanel as an artist, a designer with an experiencing nature who was willing to embrace foreign influences and combine them with her own sense of style. Chanel biographer Janet Wallach describes this trait:

Chanel’s genius lay not in the fanciful but in the functional. Her talent was her ability to adapt what was around her…whether borrowing a boyfriend’s sweater to keep warm, or admiring a sailor’s cap and restyling it as her own.

In 1920, Chanel released her flagship perfume, Chanel No 5, the first perfume to bear a designer’s name. “No elegance is possible without perfume,” Chanel said, “It is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion. It is arrogance to claim that one’s own scent is sufficient.”

The year 1926 brought another Chanel triumph, the little black dress. Featured in Vogue Magazine, the editors proclaimed, “This simple black dress will become a kind of uniform for women of taste… here is a Ford, designed by Chanel.” The little black dress become a fashion standard, afterwards referred to simply as ‘LBD’. By the mid-‘20s, against all odds, Chanel had become the fashion leader of the world.

Chanel’s bold innovation continued when she designed a women’s suit made out of wool jersey, a fabric commonly used for men’s underwear. Chanel later said, “I dress first and foremost for myself… in my work I ask myself whether I would wear a certain dress. If not, then I don’t make it.”

During World War II, Chanel lived at the Ritz Hotel in Nazi-occupied Paris and began a notorious affair with a German officer. Departing for Switzerland after the war, Chanel lived in self-imposed exile until the age of 70, when she finally returned to Paris and reopened her fashion houses. Her comeback was universally panned by the French press.

But the new line, which included the little Chanel suit, was a phenomenal success in America. When cheap imitations of the suit were mass-marketed in America so that middle-class women could afford them, Chanel said, “Let them copy… my ideas belong to everyone, I refuse no one.”

At the end of her interview, Chanel shows little regard for contemporary fashion: “An elegant woman… should not make housewives laugh—those who laugh are always right. Designers depending on shock instead of beauty should look at the history of art and discover the shock of beauty.”

The documentary reveals Chanel as a critical figure in 20th Century culture, a visionary designer, brilliant businesswoman, and unrepentant romantic. The DVD’s bonus features are practically non-existent, consisting of 30 still photographs that apparently didn’t fit into the narrative.

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