Coco Before Chanel

Coco Before Chanel

***

Reviewed by: Val Kermode

This year, anyone interested in the life of Coco Chanel will be spoilt for choice. There are several biopics around, including an American TV version with Shirley MacClaine and Malcolm McDowell and another which deals with her relationship with Stravinsky. What this one has is Audrey Tautou. Since she shot to fame in Amelie, she has proved her versatility in films like Dirty Pretty Things and Priceless. But she has now found a role which fits her like a couture glove. Besides looking remarkably like Chanel, she conveys her steely determination.

Gabrielle (Coco) and her sister Adrienne (played by Marie Gillain) are born into a very poor family and spend their adolescent years in an orphanage following the death of their mother. Here, Coco trains as a seamstress. Later, the two sisters also make a living by singing in nightclubs. Coco dreams of going to Paris, and is fortunate to meet the wealthy playboy Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), who arranges an audition for her. She fails the audition and Balsan leaves, but Coco decides to seek him out at his Normandy chateau. Here, she charms her way in and persuades Balsan to allow her to stay. He makes it plain that she is there for his entertainment, and she tolerates the drunken sex because she needs the entrée to society and because she has nowhere else to go.

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She soon wearies of the endless parties and the shallow conversation, but her non-conformity and insistence on speaking her mind are seen as refreshing by some, together with her quirky mode of dressing. Surrounded by frou-frou, Coco chooses what is to become her lifelong signature, simple elegance. Initially a simple lack of money, plus a desire for freedom from corsets, inspires her to develop her own pared down style, cutting and reshaping men’s clothes to suit herself and gradually influencing the women around her. Coco sees clearly that plain, unrevealing clothes can be more alluring and that loose clothing can give women the freedom to be active. It helps, of course, to be young, thin and gamine.

It is difficult for us, in an age where anything goes, to appreciate how daring this must have seemed. When we first see Coco dancing in a little black dress it looks perfectly normal, and walking outdoors in silk pyjamas is no big deal either. But Chanel was a rebel in more than just fashion. She is seen reading revolutionary tracts. When questioned by her actress friend (the wonderful Emmanuelle Devos) about her sexual preferences, she hints at her bisexuality, “Skin is skin”. And she is determined never to marry, though she wavers when she falls in love with Balsan’s friend, the Englishman Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola looking rather like a young Ralph Fiennes).

It is all very beautiful to look at, and packed with references to Chanel’s later creations. The camera pans lovingly over details of clothing, showing us through Coco’s eyes the influences which she gained from observing at events like the races or a trip to the seaside. Credit is due to the costume designer, Catherine Leterrier, who was given the brief of creating this “early Chanel” collection and does a fine job.

Poelvoorde is very good as Balsan, who becomes genuinely fond of Coco, realising his true feelings when she begins her affair with Boy. But it is really Tautou’s film, and she makes us admire her though we may not like her.

I did find the film rather slow-paced. Coco spends much of her time being bored and frustrated, and the problem with portraying boredom is it can become boring to watch. There is some verve in the early singing scenes, but overall I was left with the impression that breaking all those conventions was a long, hard slog.

The film takes us to the point where Chanel is preparing her first couture collection and putting on a glamorous Paris show, looking back over her life as she sends the models out onto the catwalk. Rumour has it that this film is intended to be the first part of a trilogy. It will be interesting to see how the writer deals with the wartime years, when Chanel turned collaborator. Meanwhile, we shall be seeing much more of Audrey Tautou, as she is about to take over from Nicole Kidman as the face of Chanel.

Reviewed on: 22 Jul 2009
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A look at the early life of the famous Coco Chanel.
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Director: Anne Fontaine

Writer: Anne Fontaine, based on the book by Edmonde Charles-Roux.

Starring: Audrey Tautou, Benoît Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola, Marie Gillain, Emmanuelle Devos

Year: 2009

Runtime: 105 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: France

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