Sunday, June 2, 2013

Coco sans Parfum

Reflections on Coco avant Chanel  (2009), 
directed by Anne Fontaine

Historical fictions are tricky. Whether books or films, they play with and shape the facts in order to present a more pleasing work. The truth of what really happened may be sacrificed under the guise of poetic license. Because history is so complex, the decision to include or omit mention of certain parts of a story can completely change the overall portrait of controversial figures such as Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. Before watching Coco avant Chanel, one of three films about the fashion designer released at about the same time (around 2009), I knew nearly nothing about her. This version of the story, in which Audrey Tatou plays the lead role, focuses on a simple idea: after her mother's death, little Coco was consigned by her father to an orphanage where she was raised by nuns. A single image of the young girl serves to determine the rest of the story:

Not much time is devoted to this segment of her life, but we learn that on visiting day, Coco would go wait outside for her father to come, which he never did. The image of this innocent child, devoid of any parental love and left to her own devices is referenced throughout the rest of the film.

Flashing forward to her young adulthood, Coco is singing at night for tips at a cabaret while working by day as a seamstress. She makes the acquaintance of Etienne Balsan, a rather boorish but extremely wealthy “old money” Frenchman, with whom she has a brief fling. 

Balsan arranges an audition for the young woman to obtain a regular position as entertainer, but Coco does not impress the judge with her performance. 

Her hopes of succeeding as a singer and dancer are dashed, and she returns to her apparent fate: to work as a seamstress.

When her sister (this is a composite character in the film, whose story does not accurately depict what happened) takes leave to live with a man whom she hopes to marry—though this seems unlikely ever to happen and indeed never happens, as a result of her membership in the French equivalent of an undesirable social caste—Coco decides to pay Etienne a visit at his estate, under the pretext that she is on the way to visit her sister and has decided to stop by. 

Needless to say, he is surprised to see her in this context, where she does not belong, as they met in the demimonde.

Chanel ends up staying at the Balsan estate as a live-in concubine whose true status is revealed when she is required to remain hidden from sight during parties with the social elites whom Balsan entertains. The arrangement is degrading, to put it mildly. 

Even when Balsan takes Coco to the horse races, he abandons her while he goes to sit with his upper-crust friends in the stands.

Probably the most shocking part of this arrangement is that Balsan “loans” Coco for the weekend to one of his British friends, Arthur “Boy” Capel, who has become slightly smitten with the attractive and obviously intelligent woman who has taken up residence chez Balsan. 

Coco and Arthur become romantically involved despite Balsan's presence during a costume party, and when they take off to the seashore, Coco begins to dream of life as the wife of this wonderful British nobleman, who far from hiding her away, puts her on display, taking her to dance at a fancy ball and treating her like a genuine lady rather than a low-class live-in domestic servant, as she is accustomed to being treated by Balsan.

Alas, Coco's dream is shortlived, as she is curtly apprised by Balsan that Capel is soon to be married to a high-society English lady. Arthur attempts to persuade Coco to believe that two people can be in love without marrying, and that his marriage is nothing more than a matter of social convention—from which he is apparently too weak to demur—but Coco is crushed by the news.

Coco's True Calling

Throughout her years at the Balsan estate, Chanel has been developing her unique pared-down, minimalist style, transforming men's clothes into innovative pieces for herself. By wearing these new creations, she flouts the reigning trends, which emphasize opulence and “busy” designs and patterns, perhaps most graphically illustrated by the huge hats being donned by women, but also by the obligatory corset worn by all true ladies.

Coco avant Chanel focuses on a couple of distinctive trends begun by the fashion designer, including the use of black, formerly restricted to mourning contexts, and the stripping out of excessive embellishment such as feathers and flowers. Chanel is portrayed in the film as a women's liberator of sorts, insisting that they should be able to breathe and move freely in their dresses. In several scenes she is depicted unlacing women's oppressive corsets.

In reality, according to other sources, Chanel's sympathies with women's liberation began and ended with the abolition of corsets. She paid her own workers very poorly, and when they complained, she remarked, "let them take lovers." She vehemently opposed unionization to the point where she preferred to withdraw from the fashion industry for a number of years rather than accede to the demands being made by her workers. All of this is omitted from the story as depicted in Coco avant Chanel, which ends up seeming more like a statement on the conditions of lower-class women in the early twentieth-century than a faithful portrait of Gabrielle Chanel.

In this film, the image of innocence is nursed from start to finish, and well-conveyed by Audrey Tatou, as she portrays a woman whose at times objectively disgraceful behavior is rendered comprehensible, and even a cause for sympathy, given her humble origins.

The truth is that Gabrielle Chanel would never have become a fashion icon had she been born into a family with money. She would have married a gentleman and borne his children, and we would know nothing of her today. Instead, she became associated with wealthy gentlemen who provided her with the means she needed to begin her own boutique in Paris. Coco avant Chanel skillfully presents the impediments to success to women in what until only recently has been a man's world, making Chanel's eventual triumph seem all the more remarkable.

In this film, Arthur Capel is credited with being the primary supporter and benefactor during Chanel's early years as a fashion designer. (In reality, it may have been Etienne Balsan, who is depicted as something of a scoundrel here.)  Despite Arthur's marriage to someone else, he is painted as the love of Chanel's life, and their affair continues torridly on. 

When Capel is killed in an untimely automobile accident, Coco plunges into despair.

The rest of the film portrays Chanel working indefatigably, apparently as an outlet to replace the lost love of her life. At the end she is presented as a strong and independent woman who never married because, it is strongly implied, she loved only one man, Arthur “Boy” Capel.

This, too, is a matter purely of poetic license, for we know for a fact that Coco Chanel had affairs with many other men. Indeed, in another film released also in 2009, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky (to be reviewed here imminently), the fashion designer is portrayed as one of the inspirations and benefactors of the great composer! More infamously and less controversially (no one seems to know for sure whether Chanel ever had an intimate affair with Stravinsky), it is a matter of historical record that during the Nazi occupation of France, she lived in the Ritz Carleton hotel among German officers, one of whom was her lover for many years.

The Perfume Angle

What does any of this have to do with perfume? you may by now be wondering, and not without good reason. In fact, the word 'perfume' is nowhere pronounced in Coco avant Chanel. Nor is there is a single image of any woman (or man) reaching for a bottle of perfume. There are not even any images of bottles of perfume anywhere in sight—not even in the fancy boudoirs at the estate of Etienne Balsan. 

There is, however, one plausible candidate for perfume wearer in the story, Emilienne d'Alençon, an actress who has had a longer-term and somewhat higher-level affair with Etienne Balsan. This woman did exist in history, and was notorious for attaching herself to men of means, sometimes to the point of their ruin.

Rather than Coco telling Emilienne that “women have no business smelling like flowers,” in the story as depicted in the film, Coco designs streamlined hats for the flamboyant woman, in effect telling her that “women have no business wearing birds' nests on their head.” 

No mention is made of Emilienne reeking of violets or honeysuckle or any of the other soliflores which Chanel is reputed to have denounced during her design with perfumer Ernest Beaux of Chanel no 5.

It is striking that there should be no mention of perfume whatsoever, though the film spans the duration of Gabrielle's life from her earliest days at the orphanage through the triumphant post-war comeback, where Chanel is shown inspecting her models from the vista of her famous mirrored staircase.

What are we to conclude? Someone ignorant about perfumery would come away from this film with no knowledge that Gabrielle Chanel brought into existence the most iconic perfume of the twentieth century. We perfumistas of course know this to be the case. Could a woman completely devoid of any interest in scent have done such a thing?

I should say that scent is not entirely absent from this film, as Coco is chain smoking in many of the scenes, from her days at the cabaret to her nights working alone in her atelier. While designing in her boutique, with customers present, she is repeatedly depicted with a cigarette dripping from her lip, to the point where one may not unreasonably wonder how an errant spark never caused the whole place to burn down in a blazing conflagration of black lace, silk, and wool.

Cigarette smoke has a strong and even overwhelming odor, which will modify, if not entirely mask, all subtle perfume. So one message which we could glean from this film, devoid though it is of any explicit mention of scent, is that when Chanel set about designing perfume, for her nose to be satisfied, it had to be a declarative, penetrating scent which would be detectable even in the presence of cigarette smoke. Perhaps therein lies the true reason why Chanel thought that women have no business smelling like flowers. A simple floral soliflore could never compete with the chimney stack of cigarette smoke which she was constantly pumping out!

Another message to take away from the omission of any mention whatsoever of Chanel no 5  is that Chanel was first and foremost a fashion designer, and perfume for her was a type of accessory. The fact that she farmed out her perfumery interest to the Wertheimer brothers would seem to corroborate that idea. Later, when Chanel no 5 became enormously successful, as a result of the marketing savvy of her partners, Coco attempted to reappropriate that part of her business, but her reasons appear to have been economic, not olfactory.

Perhaps the most obvious message to glean from the omission of any mention of perfume from Coco avant Chanel is that the director, Anne Fontaine, has no interest in perfume and so, to her, it seemed unnecessary to treat the topic at all in this version of the story. That a perfume-free film about Chanel could be made at all should serve as an important reminder to those of us ensconced within the subculture of perfume aficionados. There are countless people in the universe who do not care at all about perfume and find it even less interesting and valuable than fashion. Small wonder, then, that nearly no one takes it seriously as one of the beaux arts.


  1. I do understand the need for simplicity in a film sometimes, and Chanel had a really messy life. But I wish that, when filmmakers engaged in drastic simplification like this, they would make it clear that they are doing so - rather than calling it a biopic, it would be much nicer for them to say it was "based on" someone's life, biography, etc.

    Sometimes I wonder how much of the obesification of the US public has to do with antismoking efforts. I know that correlation is not causation, but isn't there a substantial temporal overlap? (And in MY case, it has definitely been causative.)

    1. Good morning, pitbull friend!

      Yes, it is always necessary to abridge such infinitely complex stories. The question becomes: how far can one go before the subject of the story becomes something else altogether? To me, Coco avant Chanel is more a statement of the conditions of women in the early twentieth century than it is a portrait of Gabrielle Chanel. It raises the interesting question whether a so-called biopic which will sow false beliefs among many viewers (all of those ignorant of the subject) is worse than no biopic at all.

      I recently watched Ben Affleck's film Argo, which is basically a "feel-good" CIA movie. To me, it seems irresponsibly laudatory of the agency's role in that episode of history. Many people who watch the film will believe that it is a faithful depiction of what really happened. They will be wrong!

      A propos of smoking: I don't know. I have never been a smoker, so I cannot relate so much to the problem, but I suppose that I could extrapolate from my caffeine addiction. Yes, I might be more inclined to overeat, if I were deprived of coffee! I'd also be dysfunctional! ;-)


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