I saw Before Coco for the second time in the theater today. The second time because a girlfriend wanted to see it and it was worth seeing again. I love Audrey Tatou so it was a no-brainer seeing it the first time, but I never knew the story. There is so much to be learned from her life.
We know that she ruled over her very influential fashion empire for 60 years and has been etched into the fashion industry as an icon. We know she was a woman ahead of her time and she was fiercely independent. What I didn’t know was that she was an abandoned orphan who began her career singing in brothels and was trapped in the underworld. Always strong, always outspoken, always smart, but still destitute and a bit lost in terms of finding her place in the world. The beauty of watching a story like this is that the rest of us know how the story ends, so we can watch the whole sordid tale unfold with an optimistic eye since we know that there was a victorious conclusion.
Coco (Gabrielle) Chanel seemed to know she was destined for greatness. (She once commented to her sister that the aristocrats sitting in their boxes at the races would someday, “Kill to dine with us.”) She always had a certainty and belief, even when she was destitute, living off the ‘kindnesses’ of a wealthy bachelor and had no clue where her place in the world was, that she was destined for something big. She did not know what. Her fate began in whispers. She had an eye for clothing, was drawn to simplicity in style (which was quite heretical during that time), passionately and instinctually knew what looked good and what did not and was fiercely independent. Still, she went from singing in brothels, to thinking perhaps she wanted to be an actress, to deciding that escaping the aristocratic bubble and venturing out on her own making hats was her way to be financially independent. She shunned the bounds of marriage which she associated with loveless social conventions or ‘mergers and acquisitions’ and knew she would never marry. She was a woman ahead of her time…but that didn’t mean she didn’t have the capacity to fall in love…
She fell in love with a man, Arthur Capel, who believed in her greatness from the beginning without reservation and who respected her and saw an exceptional future ahead of her even when she still seemed to be lost and floundering. He fell prey to the social convention of marriage and felt it necessary to marry into money, although he was deeply in love with Coco. Their love story ended tragically as the greatest love stories are often wont to do, thanks to the most astute observer of life and human behavior: Billy Shakespeare. If two people are madly in love, someone will die. Perhaps because the love was way too intense and bright to sustain itself. Perhaps the romance comes in the death. We don’t really know, but what we do know is that Arthur was killed in a car accident and she was left empty and grief-stricken. At this point, she had become financially independent and with a very successful hat shop in Paris. It was only after the death of her one great love that she poured all of that pain into expanding her line to clothes and birthed a mammoth fashion empire that would rule the fashion world.
Upon seeing the movie, we have the luxury of looking back across the length of the tapestry of her life that was woven and saying, “Oh, that’s why that happened, and that happened.” While at the time, Arthur’s death may have taken her to her knees, it is quite possible that had she not suffered this loss, she may not have poured herself into her work so completely and with such fervor. She had to do something with that pain. Who knows, she may have remained complacent and never experienced a deeper hunger. The hole in her life that remained had to be channeled into something. She channeled it into something of great beauty and influence.
There are a couple of lessons I take away from this biopic. I often feel lost when it comes to finding my place in the world. It seems at times that my niche on the planet is an elusive phantom and I’m destined to be floundering forever. This is an illusion: worrying about yesterday, or trying to overplan the future too much. The truth is that we are all destined for something and we don’t have to work too hard to grasp it. Rather, it will be revealed to us piece by piece as our life unfolds. All we have to do is show up, follow our hearts with passion, and trust. We all have a specific destiny and mission. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here . So the first lesson is to pay attention to whispers and trust. Her destiny was revealed to her gradually and we can take solace in the fact that she often felt lost and definitely had her shares of struggle. Eventually, she came into her own and found her rightful place at the table, which was her complete actualization of self. Something that is everyone’s birthright.
The second lesson to remember is that we can’t see the big picture, so that what seems bad may somehow, down the road, end up being mysteriously good by way of taking us somewhere we needed to go or helping us to come more fully into ourselves. The bottom line is, the universe is perfect and it is a friendly place – working in complete harmony for the good of all concerned. Everything is as it should be. Even the bad brings with it a gift of equal or greater proportion. All we have to do is get out of our own way and trust. Greatness need not be chased after, it is revealed by staying present in the moment, earned by overcoming obstacles and discovered by trusting we are here for a very specific reason.