Coco Before Chanel

The story of the beginnings of Gabrielle Chanel from a destitute French orphan near the turn of the 19th century to the beginnings of what would become her empire of fashion design. It’s feminist tale of liberation as Gabrielle seeks to make her own way in a “man’s world” as the end titles say. It portrays the French aristocracy as decadent and even boring in their life of leisure — to this woman, a hard working seamstress and bar dancer. So in that sense it elevates the protestant work ethic and self-made entrepreneurship over aristocratic inheritance and old money.

When Coco becomes a mistress of French millionaire Balsan, she pursues her hobby of decorating hats and wearing simple clothes that bucked the system of lavish overwrought women’s apparel with imprisoning corsets and padding of the time period. She seeks to give women freedom in their clothes and thus their bodies, and thus, their social status. Of course, she never really loves Balsan, who eventually falls in love with her and is willing to marry her against his social status. But it is too late, because she falls in love with Balsan’s best friend, “Boy” Capel, all the while maintaining her independent spirit.

The movie attempts to disconnect true passionate and meaningful love from marriage and link it to adulteress lifestyles. In the movie, all the rich men, including Coco’s lover, marry for socio-economic status, but have mistresses for true love, where they “really” experience the intimacy of being known and loved (which in the movie is depicted as nothing much beyond “fun trips and sex”). Coco complains that her mother married for love and ended up destitute and dead, with Coco and her sister in an orphanage. So marriage does not get very high marks in Coco’s mind of romantic hope.

Coco is devastated when she realizes she cannot marry Capel because he is getting married for status, but hardens herself and decides to never marry and just live the life of Capel’s mistress while growing her own business and maintaining her own independence. And they are able to do so until Capel dies in a car accident and we see in the face of Coco, a devastating loss – in the midst of her increasing success – that it appears she never overcomes for the rest of her life, since she never married.

In an ironic deconstructive way, the movie seems to bear the internal contradiction that regardless of this liberation of Coco, she doesn’t really have the intimate love she found in that one man and ends life rather sad, despite her worldly success. It seems that career may be a fulfillment of her genius, but is not the ultimate meaning for this woman who desired to be known by love, a love she sought outside marriage, a love that evaded her to her death.