Where Is the Ugly Chanel?

There is a wonderfully subtle (if historically inaccurate) scene in the new biopic Coco Before Chanel in which the 20-something, not-yet-a-fashion-doyenne is asked by her lover "Boy" Capel to attend a summer ball with him in Deauville. Chanel agrees, but—zut alors!—she has the same problem that has afflicted every woman since Eve: she has nothing to wear. The couple heads to the local atelier, where Chanel picks out black fabric and demands there be no corset. "But it will be shapeless," the woman tells her dismissively. "Do as I say," Chanel abruptly answers back. Of course, at the ball all eyes are on the petite woman (played exquisitely by Audrey Tautou) dancing the night away in—voilà!—a Little Black Dress. Never mind that Chanel really created the LBD when she was closer to 40, and long after Capel had been killed in a car accident. Almost a century after its real birthday in 1925, the Little Black Dress is still the standard cocktail-party uniform for women the world over. (Story continued below...)

You might say that Chanel's life was tailor-made for a movie, except that would be underselling her. Coco Before Chanel is actually the third Chanel biopic—in the past year. Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, starring Anna Mouglalis as the young Coco, closed the Cannes festival in May. In Lifetime's Coco Chanel, Shirley MacLaine played the older Chanel with so much scene-chewing gusto that she somehow completely swallowed her French accent. Fortunately, there's plenty in Chanel's biography to go around. The illegitimate daughter of a nomadic peddler, raised in an orphanage from the age of 12, Chanel went on to become a multimillionaire. She was the first woman to start a cosmetics line and the first to have a perfume named after her—she always said that No. 5 was lucky (and she was apparently right). "She led this Cinderella life that appeals to a narrative in all of us," says Chris Greenhalgh, the author of Coco and Igor, which was the basis for the film at Cannes.

Making millions—not to mention all but banishing the corset forever—would provide plenty of material to fill a good movie or three, but Coco was even bigger than that. She arguably did more to revolutionize the look (and the smell) of the modern woman than anyone this side of Amelia Bloomer. "Before Chanel," says Marie-Louise de Clermont--Tonnerre, Chanel's head of international public relations, "women who wore red lipstick, had suntans, and wore fake jewels were peasants or whores." If France had an all-female Mount Rushmore, Chanel would almost certainly be on it. "If you were to say who are the four French iconic historical figures, I would say Piaf, Marie Antoinette, Joan of Arc, and Coco Chanel," says Greenhalgh. "The films of the other three have been successful, interesting cinema experiences, so I think Chanel was the next obvious one."

Except in the case of Chanel, something seems to have been lost in translation. For all her accomplishments as a businesswoman and a feminist, these movies focus almost exclusively on her rise from the French gutter to the glittery heights of fashion. Onscreen, Coco is forever young; even MacLaine's mature version got considerably less screen time than Barbora Bobulova, who played the young Chanel. That's understandable; Chanel's person-al story is pretty irresistible. Gabrielle Chanel (she made a living early on as a café singer; the songs "Ko Ko Ri Ko" and "Qui qu'a vu Coco" were two of her signatures) was her own greatest creation. She was friends with Picasso and Cocteau (and frenemies with Colette). Her lovers included Nazi officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage, Stravinsky (allegedly), and the Second Duke of Westminster—her use of tweed, unheard of in ladies' fashion at the time, was inspired by fishing trips she took to Scotland with the duke. "From a mysterious background, glamorous lovers from an English duke to a Russian count, and above all an enduring symbol of feminist fashion," says Suzy Menkes, fashion editor at The International Herald Tribune, "she pulled herself up by her own shoe straps to found a fashion house that gave women liberty from corsets and female frou."

Lively, fascinating—but hardly the woman in full. Is it PC to point out that recent movies made about equally successful, creative men (Ray Charles, Jackson Pollock) didn't let their love lives overshadow the focus on their successes? "Do any of these movies really capture Gabrielle Chanel as a creative force?" complains Menkes. "It's all about hats, lovers, and jewels and pretty pictures, while the tough and resilient spirit never really comes across." You can feel that disconnect most strongly in a scene at the end of Coco Before Chanel (which is debuting now in Europe and next month in the United States). Chanel has made it to the top, and she is sitting—none too subtly—atop the spiral staircase of her atelier, running a fashion show. Her frothy, elegant demeanor has been replaced by a cold and remote woman watching the models parade in front of her like a general examining her troops. The message seems to be that the successful, powerful Chanel was off-putting and officious, rather than the interesting, complex woman she really was. "If you know Chanel only through these films," says Clermont-Tonnerre, "you do not know anything about her." Tautou is perfectly lovely in the role, but, like all the other Chanels, she plays her like Audrey Hepburn, when the actual woman was cut more from Katharine Hepburn's cloth. In fact, Katharine Hepburn played Chanel in 1969, in her only Broadway musical. The highlight of the show often came at the top of Act II, when Chanel plots a comeback. As the curtain went up, Hepburn's first word was one that she herself inserted into the script: "Merde." Of course Hepburn said it in English, but you get the idea. The Coco Chanel story didn't always have to be perfumed.