There is a wonderfully subtle scene in the new biopic Coco Before Chanel in which the 20-something,not-yet-a-fashion-doyenne is asked by her lover Boy Capel to attend a summer ball with him in Deauville.
Chanel agrees,but she has the same problem that has afflicted every woman since Eve: she has nothing to wear. The couple heads to the local atelier,where Chanel picks out black fabric and demands there be no corset. But it will be shapeless, the woman tells her dismissively. Do as I say, Chanel abruptly answers back. Of course,at the ball all eyes are on the petite woman (played exquisitely by Audrey Tautou) dancing the night away invoila!a Little Black Dress. Never mind that Chanel really created the LBD when she was closer to 40,and long after Capel had been killed in a car accident. Almost a century after its real birthday in 1925,the Little Black Dress is still the standard cocktail-party uniform for women the world over.
Coco Before Chanel is the third Chanel biopic in the past year. Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky,starring Anna Mouglalis as the young Coco,closed the Cannes festival in May. In Lifetimes Coco Chanel,Shirley MacLaine played the older Chanel. The illegitimate daughter of a nomadic peddler,raised in an orphanage from the age of 12,Chanel went on to become a multimillionaire. She was the first woman to start a cosmetics line and the first to have a perfume named after hershe always said that No. 5 was lucky (and she was apparently right). She led this Cinderella life that appeals to a narrative in all of us, says Chris Greenhalgh,the author of Coco and Igor,which was the basis for the film at Cannes.
Coco arguably did more to revolutionise the look (and the smell) of the modern woman than anyone this side of Amelia Bloomer. Before Chanel, says Marie-Louise de Clermont-Tonnerre,Chanels head of international public relations,women who wore red lipstick,had suntans,and wore fake jewels were peasants or whores.
For all her accomplishments as a businesswoman and a feminist,these movies focus almost exclusively on her rise from the French gutter to the glittery heights of fashion. Onscreen,Coco is forever young; even MacLaines mature version got considerably less screen time than Barbora Bobulova,who played the young Chanel. Thats understandable; Chanels personal story is pretty irresistible. Gabrielle Chanel (she made a living early on as a cafe singer; the songs Ko Ko Ri Ko and Qui qua vu Coco were two of her signatures) was her own greatest creation. She was friends with Picasso and Cocteau (and frenemies with Colette). Her lovers included Nazi officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage,Stravinsky (allegedly),and the Second Duke of Westminsterher use of tweed,unheard of in ladies fashion at the time,was inspired by fishing trips she took to Scotland with the duke.
Lively,fascinatingbut hardly the woman in full. Do any of these movies really capture Gabrielle Chanel as a creative force? complains Menkes. Its all about hats,lovers,and jewels and pretty pictures,while the tough and resilient spirit never really comes across. You can feel that disconnect most strongly in a scene at the end of Coco Before Chanel. Chanel has made it to the top,and she is sitting atop the spiral staircase of her atelier,running a fashion show. Her frothy,elegant demeanour has been replaced by a cold and remote woman watching the models parade in front of her like a general examining her troops. Tautou is perfectly lovely in the role,but,like all the other Chanels,she plays her like Audrey Hepburn,when the actual woman was cut more from Katharine Hepburns cloth. In fact,Katharine Hepburn played Chanel in 1969,in her only Broadway musical. The highlight of the show often came at the top of Act II,when Chanel plots a comeback. As the curtain went up,Hepburns first word was one that she herself inserted into the script: Merde. Of course Hepburn said it in English,but you get the idea. The Coco Chanel story didnt always have to be perfumed.