French director Anne Fontaine is well known for her adept portrayal of psychological drama and the cruel twists of fate and love. Her 2003 film Nathalie charts the development of a complicated arrangement in which a wife hires a prostitute to report to her with information about her cheating husband. In 2009, she turned her hand to the founder of the most infamous of fashion houses, Coco Chanel. From meagre beginnings as an orphan, to a spell as a raucous singer, Chanel became the lover of the rich yet stiflingly upper class Etienne Balsan, played by Benoit Poelvoorde.
Dissatisfied with her role as his mistress, Gabrielle or ‘Coco’ left him and went on to forge for herself an infamous and independent career at the height of society. She was a pioneer in rebelling against and replacing the restrictive and overly decorative fashions for women which were favoured in the nineteenth century. She also flouted conventions in scandalous fashion when it came to her own lifestyle, refusing to ride side-saddle and dressing in ‘masculine’ attire.
Fontaine succeeds in offering us a visual feast of the most iconic of Coco Chanel’s original influences; from the Breton-striped jersey fabric of sailors, to the ‘colour that is really a colour’, black. Her fashion house continues to produce versions of the little black dress, the woollen suit, quilted fabrics and pearl accessories that she introduced to the female wardrobe in the early twentieth century.
However, as Fontaine renders poignantly onto the screen, this success was not achieved without some fair measure of loss and heartache. It is Coco’s affair of forbidden love with the Englishman Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, also an orphan and self-made man, which allows Fontaine to really shine.