Peter M Howard ::

Coco avant Chanel

09Aug2009 [movies]

In which an orphan constructs herself a new identity, finding her independence in ‘Coco’

Fairly quickly, the film establishes two identities for its main character — there's Gabrielle, the orphan, an aspiring dancer but without any real sense of agency, and Coco — determined, and eventually completely self-assured. Gabrielle is deserted by her father in her childhood. When older, she performs for, and is used by men. But with the Coco persona, she lets men take nothing — she rides like a man, dresses like a man, takes men as lovers on her own terms. Whenever she makes a decision (to visit Étienne, to pursue 'Boy' and to holiday with him, to move to Paris), it is as Coco. Gabrielle is left behind.

There's an implication that her abandonment at the hands of her father set her up to avoid commitment, and to avoid trusting other men, but that seems a little too trite, too simple an explanation. Her decision to never marry is completely an expression of her self-will, even if she does have to become Coco to assert her identity. Towards the end, she very nearly runs away with 'Boy', which would have been an escape and a retreat to the persona of Gabrielle, but when she loses that opportunity she is forced to embrace her independence.

The film is beautifully shot, and directed with an incredibly fine eye for detail. Lingering over fabrics and textures evokes a tactile experience where one would normally only sense sight and sound. The camera fetishizes textiles in a way that other cameras would fetishize flesh. In this, there's a curious simultaneous warmth and distance — we can almost feel the fabrics, but they're just out of our reach. This is similar to how we're left feeling about Coco herself — we never really get to know the real person, Gabrielle or Coco, hidden behind her constructed persona.

But the film is very clearly about her construction of this persona. She's nicknamed Coco early on, and gradually embraces it — at one time retconning her childhood and saying the nickname came from her father. There is some time spent exploring her identity, but it all feels inevitable — she's drawn inexorably to the closing scene — her first fashion show. And in that closing, she has become fully 'Coco', hiding behind a mask. She seems unwilling to show any emotion, as though it might break the mask and reveal Gabrielle, the orphan. But when successful, in the face of enthusiastic applause, she beams, and it's Coco who does so — the mask not removed, but fully absorbed into her identity.

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