If you come away from “Coco avant Chanel” disappointed that the film has almost none of the brilliant designs that made its title character famous, you can’t say you weren’t warned: The title is, after all, “Coco Before Chanel.”
This French film is a portrait of the artist as a young woman, confident she was born to do something special but utterly unaware of what that thing might be. Gabrielle Chanel (Audrey Tautou) has a sort of ruthless ambition — but in Anne Fontaine’s dashing film, it’s directed more toward the physical than the creative spirit.
Young Gabrielle bitterly feels her lack of material advantages. The film opens in 1893, as the 10-year-old and her sister, Adrienne (an amalgam of two sisters) arrive at an orphanage after their mother’s death. Gabrielle waits in vain for her father to visit.
She escapes the nuns, but not her pressing physical needs. Fifteen years later, she and Adrienne (Marie Gillain) are seamstresses who supplement their income in the music halls of the small city of Moulin. Here the women meet lovers; Gabrielle’s rechristens her “Coco” after one of the cheesy songs the sisters sing.
Already, Coco is a single-minded striver. She follows her lover, Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), to his estate and installs herself as the mistress. She appears an odd duck to the rich man’s aristocratic friends, dressing plainly and stealing the collars and cuffs of his shirts to make her own dresses new again. She’s a bitter wit, too. In fact, that, combined with her reluctance to accede to Etienne’s sexual demands, makes it unclear just why he keeps her around. It must be “those dark little eyes” he loves, which Miss Tautou certainly knows how to use.
It’s the love of her life who says approvingly on meeting her, “You’re elegant.” She’s wearing men’s pajamas. Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola) is rather refined himself; as one man says, “He stole our mistresses, but always with elegance.” Already taken, he’s unavailable physically — another corporeal want dashed — but inspires her creatively. She makes hats and clothes for Etienne’s connected female friends, but Boy encourages her to think bigger — much bigger.
Miss Tautou looks a little like Coco Chanel, and she has mastered the mannerisms. More important, she communicates the ambition that made this poor little orphan the most influential woman in fashion. Just how she was influential is also made clear in Miss Fontaine’s film — her clothes, sans corsets, literally let women breathe again.
The focus, though, isn’t on the creative mind behind the woman, but rather the men behind the women. “Coco Before Chanel” is, ultimately, a love story. At the end of the film, we finally see some of the beautiful clothes Coco designed, but instead of feeling the triumph she has worked years for, her unsmiling face shows only sadness. The thought we’re left with is that no success could equal the man she lost. It’s a disquieting ending to the story of a woman who liberated so many others from the restraints men had put on them.
TITLE: “Coco Before Chanel” (“Coco avant Chanel”)
RATING: PG-13 (sexual content and smoking)
CREDITS: Directed by Anne Fontaine. Written by Anne Fontaine and Camille Fontaine based on the biography by Edmonde Charles-Roux.
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes
WEB SITE: sonyclassics.com/cocobeforechanel
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS