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'Solitaire' Pursues the Beauty of Chanel

March 18, 1993|JANET KINOSIAN

"Chanel Solitaire" is the video to see if you want the spicy details of the private life of Coco Chanel, the early 20th-Century fashion designer who captured the world's wish for thrillingly loose, unfrilled, functional fashion.

The film--based on the novel by Claude Delay, so there's some fiction and some fact--stars the lovely Marie-France Pisier as the adult Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel, who, when we first meet her, is an abandoned little French girl austerely taken to a Catholic orphanage.

Right up front we see she's a demanding handful. Within five minutes of arriving at the convent, she shouts at the nun in charge: "No, I won't wear your clothes. I hate your clothes. I have my own!"

But Gabrielle peers, listens and soaks up the simplicity in the nuns' attire: Here are women who look like men but are still beautiful. In one fascinating scene, the 9-year-old Coco wanders to a nun's chambers and peeks into her room as the young nun performs her haircutting ritual. Gabrielle knows somehow that this blending of the masculine and feminine is in her future too.

After getting help from a wealthy benefactor/friend/lover (Rutger Hauer) and his mistress (Karen Black), she starts up a women's hat boutique in his Paris apartment. Within months, she explodes on the Paris fashion scene.

Most of the film is spent recording something Chanel wanted but never got: love. We are shown a succession of friends and lovers--many of whom were good to her, some who used her, and most who misunderstood her.

Though Chanel's real-life associations with the Picassos and Churchills of the world go undocumented in the film, we are shown clearly how they worked for her: The wealthy pursued her beauty, and she pursued their wealth.

The film's strength lies in its ability to show both sides of Coco Chanel: a pathetically sad little orphan who starts with nothing but triumphs in the fashion world. But if your interest is in gorgeous clothes and sumptuous locations, you will not be disappointed. There is enough here to glut the eye.

"Chanel Solitaire" (1984), directed by George Kaczender. 124 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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