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Coco Chanel, Jane Austen and Anita Brookner: On Flying Solo And Free

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I saw "Coco Avant Chanel" in Paris last spring, because I wanted to see a French film and "Coco" (somewhat to my dismay) was the only French movie playing in the two multi-screen cinemas around the Carrefour de l'Odéon, the rest of them being American horror shows with subtitles, or otherwise from elsewhere. Normally I have next to no interest in either Chanel herself or in the more recondite subtleties of women's couture -- no! what I mean to say is that I am happy to observe women looking beautiful in their clothes but I don't really want to know how they do that.

Still, advance publicity, where Audrey Tatou exuded a darkly smoldering something or other, had caught my eye; moreover it was raining outdoors.... Then, last week, I saw the movie again in the States -- why? I wondered, twenty minutes in. Not for the compelling narrative, for there is practically no story. But in France I had missed most of what struck me as a pivotal scene even though I failed to understand most of the dialogue, when Tatou/Chanel stands in the light of a French window and speaks intensely to the man she loves, and I want to see that bit again with the crutch of subtitles.

Let us suppose that Tatou's character is strictly fictional; never mind how strong her rapport may be with the historical Chanel. The movie proffers Coco before Chanel after all, in a period before her public persona has hardened, when not so much about her is known. Suppose her to be the heroine of an invented narrative, to which she seems at first to bring little weight, for she arrives on the scene as an orphaned seamstress, or not especially talented cabaret girl, then struggles to transform herself from a petite amourette to recognized mistress in the household of the dissolute French country gent, Balsan -- a challenging but not wholly impossible career path in pre-WWI France.

Now turn for a moment to the novels of Jane Austen -- enduringly popular because of their acute understanding of social and economic parameters of mating which change very little over time or even between cultures. The nineteenth-century Austen heroine must deploy her very limited freedom to win a marriage both wise and good (the alternatives to marriage being quite unthinkable). After the honeymoon she will turn to accomplishing the same thing for her daughters. In the late twentieth century, Anita Brookner made a career of novels which enact the same sort of drawing room dramas around courtship but end by dumping their heroines into unhappy, inescapable solitude.

Our Coco will have none of this. The story behind this film's near plotlessness is her steely determination to become what she must be -- even though she doesn't know what that is. Reputed to be cute and kittenish in her previous films, Tatou plays Coco with a stern, lip-biting self-control, defining herself at first by negation. She will not be tossed off as a one-night stand, and later when Balsan breaks down and offers her marriage (a near unimaginable triumph for someone in her situation) she will not be his wife.

By this point in the story Coco and Balsan have evolved into companionable friendship (with benefits to be sure); the romance is between her and Arthur "Boy" Capel, who seems to appreciate, admire, even love whatever it is she is striving to turn herself into, who at the same time borrows her for a getaway from Balsan as if she were a horse or a dog, has no difficulty planning a marriage to an eligible English aristocrat while courting Coco, nor in telling Coco that his marriage "will change nothing between us."

That line finishes the scene by the window, but by then Coco has already stated her case. In Austen's novels, the women hope to marry for a function of love and practicality, and in Brookner's the failure to achieve that turns her tales into tragedies. Coco tells Boy that her mother married for love and so died in misery because her husband constantly betrayed her--the same husband who abandoned Coco and her sister in the orphanage, never to see them again.

So Coco means to take all her chips off the marriage table. In the next scene, as the two men play billiards, weighing their chances, Balsan raps out a quick marriage proposal, to which Coco says quickly, "I'm not going to marry whoever it might be." Balsan, who no longer regards her as a troublesome plaything, is jealous, in love, and hurt by her refusal; he turns from her quickly, half-swallowing his retort; Ça a la mérite d'être clair.

But of course the great virtue of this fictional Coco (and maybe of the real-life Chanel too) is to be clear. The main business of the film's story line is done with this scene. A denouement car wreck cheats Coco of her romance with Boy; thereafter we see her alone, though not pathetically lonely like Brookner's women once they've lost their loves. The solitary Coco is complete in herself and she makes everything from cutting fabric to smoking a fat black-tobacco French cigarette look like some kind of rapture.

The clarity is embodied in the clothes; their clean lines and their radically simplified relationship to the body, which in fictional Coco's early days is shown to be her main stock in trade. So much comes out of her lucid perception that she could cut clothes that suited her own androgynous form much better than the frou-frou fashion she eradicated -- and that the crisp new image she cut for herself would work for other women too. What Chanel created was a clean and simple, light-weight armor that protected women very well in their battle for a better place in a world becoming modern. Hers was a style that took no prisoners, cutting across parlors and down runways with the clean sweeping strokes of scissor blades.