Coco Chanel, Traveling a Hard Road to the Little Black Dress





WHEN Coco Chanel died in 1971 at the age of 87, she left more than a legendary quilted handbag and a trail of Chanel No. 5 in her wake.

A rebel and a pioneer as well as a designer, she freed women for the 20th century, replacing their corsets and lace frills with sailor shirts and wool jersey and democratizing elegance in the form of the Little Black Dress.

Her storied life — from lowly beginnings to the pinnacle of French couture, with controversial love affairs, bons mots, business failures and comebacks along the way — made her one of France’s most celebrated 20th-century heroines.

Nearly four decades after her death she has inspired a slate of films, the most high-profile of them “Coco Before Chanel,” which opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Starring Audrey Tautou (“Amélie,” “The Da Vinci Code”) and directed by Anne Fontaine, it is loosely based on “L’Irrégulière, ou, Mon Itinéraire Chanel,” a 2001 history by Edmonde Charles-Roux. The film opened in France last spring to generally good reviews and respectable box office, selling more than a million tickets.

As the title suggests, “Coco Before Chanel” traces Chanel’s formative years, a little-known period that she often lied about and tried to obscure. Born Gabrielle Chanel in the Loire Valley, she was abandoned at 12 by her widowed father and placed in an orphanage. The film begins there and follows her struggle to transcend her miserable beginnings.

At its heart are her relationships with the aristocrat Étienne Balsan (played by the Belgian actor Benoît Poelvoorde) and his friend and eventual rival, Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola), the English industrialist who stole Coco’s heart and helped her start what would become one of the most successful brands in the history of haute couture.

Last November in the midst of shooting in Paris, technicians in jeans and T-shirts rushed about preparing for a scene in the faded 18th-century elegance of the windowless foyer at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal, once the haunt of Molière. Between takes Ms. Tautou examined her nails and shoved her hands deep into the pockets of a modest suit of her own design. She slowly paced the room, head bowed, pausing only to appraise herself in a gilded mirror and straighten the faded black straw boater perched on her wig of coiled, upswept hair.

In the ensuing scene Coco, having realized that her life as Balsan’s mistress is no less restricting than her former poverty, implores an acquaintance — the actress and courtesan Émilienne d’Alençon (Emmanuelle Devos) — to help her find work. “I want to be an actress like you,” she says. D’Alençon encourages her to return to Balsan’s protection and hang on for dear life. But she notices the homemade hat and encourages Coco to make more. Chanel’s talent for sewing — a survival skill taught by the nuns at the orphanage — becomes her salvation...


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