Anne Fontaine’s Coco Before Chanel—a film that purports to show how Gabrielle Chanel became the world-famous Coco Chanel—is a perfect example of a sound approach to the biopic. Rather than wander all over the place trying to stuff an entire life into a couple hours of screen time, Fontaine’s film settles on a defining part of its subject’s life and focuses on it. In so doing, Fontaine—with the help of a nuanced performance from Audrey Tautou—manages to create a film that captures both the essence of its subject and the times and circumstances that helped to shape her. Compare this with Mira Nair’s Amelia—a sprawling work that barely bothers to address what formed Amelia Earhart—and you’ll see all the difference in the world.
The film traces Gabrielle’s life from the abandonment of her and her sister at an orphanage to the very point of her emergence on the fashion scene—with a marvelous, kaleidoscopic (and well-earned) glimpse of the future to top it off. Fontaine presents Gabrielle as someone who is disappointed by a man—her father—and decides to never again put herself in that position. As a result, by the time she and her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain), are young women singing “naughty” songs (including one about a lost dog named Coco, which earns Gabrielle her nickname), she’s already equipped with a jaundiced view of the world—and men. In her eyes, it’s merely a realistic point of view, so it’s no surprise when she takes up with Etienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), because he has connections and is “less stupid” than the other men around her.
What’s interesting about her relationship with Balsan is that it’s essentially an arrangement—and an arrangement that both accept for what it is. What neither suspects is that their various games—and attempts at jockeying for positions—will lead to a kind of relationship, though hardly a conventional one. But then this isn’t the story of a conventional woman, and what the film shows us is how Gabrielle reinvents herself—and is herself reinvented—by the circumstances of her early life. Never does this become more apparent than when she falls in love with Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola, The Eye). It’s an event that surprises her and also surprises Balsan, who suddenly realizes how much he’s come to depend on her in his life. It’s never spoken of directly, but this is how and when Coco realizes that she’s as much shaping life around her as it’s shaping her.
In the end, Coco is a film that relies very heavily on Audrey Tautou’s ability to convey a great deal with a minimum of effort. Hers is a performance of small touches and gestures. She conveys much with little more than a glance, a flicker of a smile, a subtle change in the position of her body. At no point does she seem to be acting. Instead, she seems to inhabit her role—the role of a woman who is carefully measuring the world she inhabits and creating her place in it. More than anything, this is what drives the film forward and affords it its place in the world of biographical film. Rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking.