After Coco

I didn't really want to see Coco Before Chanel. From the previews and the posters, I thought it would be a Hallmark Movie type of thing. Boring and preachy and visually dull. But a friend of mine wanted to see it, and it was a gloomy Monday afternoon after a week and a weekend and a morning of working and otherwise being productive ("productive" being a popular word in guilt-ridden, ambition-fueled New York, at least in my experience), so I decided to join her for a late matinee at the theater around the corner from me.

The movie was much better than I had guessed. Inspiring. Restrained. Elegant. It was Coco Chanel.

Audrey Tautou, who was fanciful and secretly dark in Amelie, was serious and subdued and openly dark here. The picture of restraint, communicating everything with her giant blackpool eyes. Her sparrow-like body and gamine appeal may have made her seem like another fragile creature in need of rescue, but her reserve and her earthy, wild-child curiosity made it clear she was a force unlike most others. It's a movie whose appeal sneaks up you, much as Coco's did. (If the movie is accurate, she was born Gabrielle but nicknamed Coco after a too-cute song she sang in a saloon, about a lost canine named, yes, Coco.)

It's a story of an underdog, and I like underdogs. I grew up on movies about them. Rocky. The Karate Kid/s. The Champ. Flashdance. Fame. Funny Girl. TV shows, too—Rhoda especially. I appreciate the person—the imperfect person—who has to figure out how the hell they're gonna get out of whatever unhappy situation they're in and into whatever hopeful-seeming opportunity they think they have a shot at. I like it messy and unsure. I admire it.

Maybe it's that it's thrilling to see someone who does what they want to do even when there are no others like them, when there's no precedent. In Coco Before Chanel, young Gabrielle/Coco chose (out of desperation) to go live with a man who was quite wealthy and who comfortably, perhaps too lazily to the point of numbness, existed in a class-conscious, bacchanalian world where ostentation was the sole form of self identity. Not having that kind of cash nor the interest in conforming, Coco cut modest clothing for herself out of her male friend's tweedy wardrobe. She lacked the plumage that the other women relied on to signal their worth, and they mocked her for it. But she displayed something far more valuable. As the man with whom she'd eventually fall in love said, she was "elegant." Fashion and biography aside, she was herself. What could be more exciting to watch than a character who allows herself that?

After the movie, my pal and I went to Le Singe Vert for a post-movie drink and postmortem. And after she left, I stayed on for dinner. As I was eating (a frisee salad with a poached egg and lardons, and pretty darn good), they put on Norah Jones' Come Away With Me, and I was thinking about when I interviewed her about a month ago. She was in her 20s when she made that album, and she was just 30 when I talked to her. I asked her if she was old-fashioned, and she said yes, but she was apologetic about it. And I remember thinking that here's this young woman who is so talented, and also so successful (the two are sometimes mutually exclusive), and she's got all these different sides to her. She's played in a sort of temporary punk band, and she loves hip-hop. She loves more than just what she's known for, which is this restrained jazz-influenced, somewhat downbeat or at least meditative kind of music.

She was an underdog at one point, not being the easily marketed comely young woman who makes pop songs that are (choose one from the following) angry, coy, bubbly, politically meaningful, comical. She did her own thing, and she became a giant star. And the stardom could have been really confining, except Norah does this amazing thing where she doesn't spill gossip about all the people in her life, she doesn't feel she has to reveal stuff because big people ask her about it (and she's been interviewed by some rather imposing media luminaries, like Katie Couric and Oprah Winfrey). She remains an underdog—meaning she still has the "her" that made her who she is—to this day.

Yeah, I got all of that from a movie I went to see just because it was there.