Find any cartoon caricature of a Frenchman in an English-speaking country and he is liable to be wearing a Breton fisherman's shirt. It was Breton farmers, apparently, who originally favored this marvelously deconstructed garment, nipping across the English Channel to sell onions to the English, who called them "onion johnnies." Thus, the English association of Frenchmen with onions and striped boat-necked jerseys. Virtually the same blue-striped shirt has also been the uniform of Russian naval ratings since tsarist times. It is, in short, a storied article of clothing.
Needless to say, Audrey Tautou looks fetching in hers. She does with a striped fisherman's jersey what Brigitte Bardot did with beach sand and Jean Seberg did with the cheap promotional T-shirt. As Coco Chanel, Tautou's discovery of the jersey on a visit to the seaside is a classic example of the biopic light-up moment.
We go into biopics—or any movie based closely on well-known historical events, but biopics especially—generally knowing something about how the story is going to turn out. If you know nothing else about Edith Piaf, you've gathered somewhere she had a rough life. You probably know enough about Adolf Hitler to guess that he's going to live through Valkyrie but die in Downfall. Just how much you know going into a biopic, of course, depends on your areas of interest.
And partial ignorance, at least, can be bliss. I went into Coco Before Chanel with only a thumbnail sketch of Coco Chanel: I knew she was a French designer who revolutionized style in the early 1900s by making women's clothing comfortable again, that she was thought to have had an affair with Igor Stravinsky and that she later collaborated with the Nazis, shacking up with a colonel or general or something to keep her studio at the Ritz. I could picture a few of her smartly tailored designs on the compact person of Jacqueline Kennedy, and somehow I knew about the striped jersey.
And even with that basic information, I experienced a half-dozen of those biopic light-up moments when, knowing only nominally more about what will happen to the characters than the characters do, you get to share in the pleasure of their chance discoveries and fateful meetings, the small origins of big things to come. It's more complex than that, even—it's like the filmmakers have wrapped a marvelous present or arranged a wonderful surprise for a child to discover, and sat back to savor the moment they walk into it. The children are us, not the movie characters. Students of fashion will certainly have more of those light-up moments than I did (although most of the familiar fashions are crowded into a bizarre sort of revue at the very end of the movie), but even if not one little light bulb goes off for you, you are not likely to leave Coco Before Chanel feeling benighted.
Movies like Coco Before Chanel succeed by satisfying both the experts and the largely uninitiated, with everyone in the middle more or less drawn along by inertia. In Coco's case, the movie covers the murky prehistory of both Chanel the woman and Chanel the one-woman fashion empire, stopping short just as her business gets going. Her story starts out a lot like Edith Piaf's, recently dramatized in La vie en rose: would-be cabaret singer struggles to surmount rough beginnings and avoid prostitution by cultivating a career. Unlike the self-destructive Piaf, however, Tautou's Coco shows herself early on to be a hard case and a shrewd calculator, prepared to do whatever it takes to make it out of poverty and bondage, always mindful of the consequences of a single misstep. Raised in an orphanage, her options as a young woman on her own seem few and grim, and it's clear she's not going to take them lying down.
Or, rather, that she will if it benefits her, albeit sparingly. She sleeps with a wealthy, decadent landowner (Benoit Poelvoerde) with connections at a ritzier cabaret, and when the resulting audition doesn't work out, she doorsteps him at his country estate and demands to be taken in. He treats her rudely, though strangely affably, and she likes him enough to stay on. The situation is complicated by the arrival of an English gentleman.
Some will argue that Tautou is simply too adorable to be taken seriously as a real-life character, or that after Amélie it's enough for Tautou to just be adorable. It's true, she is adorable, and in Coco Before Chanel she smiles, quite a lot, a real teeth smile and not the winsome pucker of the hyperglycemic Amélie. Magic! But her performance is also quietly impeccable, not showy. Given the predetermined nature of the biopic, there's hardly a sense of Coco being swept effortlessly toward her destiny. She's fully in charge at every turn, and if it means looking fetching in her striped Breton jersey, well, too bad for the haters. It's entirely appropriate.
Last time I went looking for striped Russian navy jerseys in a former Soviet republic, the flea markets were awash in flimsy Chinese bootlegs and the genuine article was almost impossible to find. I instantly regretted giving mine to an old girlfriend: the thick, rough cotton lining, the washed-out indigo stripes, the little tag with Cyrillic letters! But it was really just sitting in my closet. It's a big look. Never felt like I could quite pull it off.
Coco Before Chanel continues at the Wilma Theatre.