Before the famed fashion designer put her name on one of the most popular brands in the world, Coco Chanel was a humble seamstress. Coco Before Chanel takes the audience on a look back at her rags to riches story.
Audrey Tautou (Amélie, The Da Vinci Code) finds her way into the soul of Gabrielle Chanel, a rebellious young woman who never allowed a man to stop her from achieving her dreams.
The film starts out with Gabrielle and Adrienne (Marie Gillain) as nightclub performers, fresh from a convent where their pressed-upon father abandoned them. Although we hear many stories from Gabrielle’s lips about who he was, what he did and why he left them, we never find out the full story, but it’s not that important to the film.
As they grew up and tried desperately to move on to bigger and better engagements, but never managed to succeed before Adrienne found a gentleman with whom to have an affair, leaving Gabrielle behind to attempt a solo act, but ultimately find work as a seamstress.
Attempting to follow in her sisters footsteps of finding a wealthy man upon whom to depend, she meets Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), a confessed bachelor who, unlike many of his contemporaries, never really took highly to stringing along a mistress or even inviting her to move in with him. But, not satisfied with her work, Coco found her way to his home and moved in before he could even say no. Their less-than-intimate relationship continued for many years. He kept providing for her and she kept soaking it all in, eventually finding romance with one of his British business associates: Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola)
While the film moves slowly through its narrative, the information provided is ultimately fascinating, made more interesting by Tautou’s skilled performance. She portrays the clothing guru in her youth as a subdued spitfire, never flinching when it comes to speaking her mind even when the culture would not have found it appropriate.
Nivola and Poelvoorde add wonderful support, as does Emmanuelle Devos as Balsan’s former lover-turned-actress. They never let you take your eyes from Coco for long, but they are charming, stern and supportive each in their own way.
The story does take a few liberties with her life story, but mostly for dramatic effect and without really damaging the story being told. Director Anne Fontaine, along with her co-writer Camille Fontaine (no familial relation), craft an elegant story that doesn’t go into lurid detail and focuses on rightly portraying Chanel as a strong, vibrant woman. If the story lags a bit, it’s not much of a problem as it allows us to spend more time with Coco, though a bit of a trim here or there might have helped.
The costumes fit the period well, capturing turn-of-the-century France and allowing us to watch as Coco crafts her own clothes and helps her friends define new looks. It’s part of the film’s charm. All of this is resolved in a gorgeous scene at the end of the film where Coco has her first fashion show and a long cascade of women wearing her dresses descends a beautiful, mirrored spiral staircase. It may not fit stylistically with the rest of the film, but it’s a terrific scene.
-Wesley Lovell (March 18, 2010)