Coco Before Chanel

Movie Information

The Story: The early life of Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, charting her rise from poverty to the very edge of being the name in fashion. The Lowdown: A nicely drawn, beautifully produced biopic that benefits from a clear idea of what it wants and a wonderful performance from its star, Audrey Tautou.
Genre: Biographical Drama
Director: Anne Fontaine
Starring: Audrey Tautou, Benoît Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola, Marie Gillain, Emmanuelle Devos
Rated: PG-13

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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5 thoughts on “Coco Before Chanel

  1. Ken Hanke

    you write a fabulous review

    Thank you. Have you seen the movie?

  2. nancy

    I loved everything about this movie and especially the performance by Tautou! I have a whole new appreciation for her work as an actor and for her subject, Chanel. And yes, I now see the difference between a so-so biopic and a great one. This movie lingered with me for days and still does. Amelia, sad to say, did not.

  3. Ken Hanke

    And yes, I now see the difference between a so-so biopic and a great one. This movie lingered with me for days and still does

    There is a difference, though part of it lies in the fact that Fontaine’s film has numerous stick-in-the-mind images — young Coco waiting for the visit that never happens, the scene where she leaves Balsan with the simple “I’m frightened,” the dance in the black dress, standing on the roadway looking at “Boy’s” wrecked Bugatti, the fabulous mirrored fashion show (what a terrific way to end the film) — that simply aren’t there in Amelia, despite its period gloss. Actually, that gloss probably works against Amelia because everything is too pristine and polished.

  4. Interesting how the stay in the Catholic orphanage greatly influenced Chanel’s style….her simplicity is in stark contrast with the fashion of the time. She relieved women of the organ crushing corsets. Many of the designs she created in the movie are remeniscent of the nuns habits…but updated with great Chanel style. Even her famous chain belts are a take off of a nuns hanging cross/belt.

  5. Ken Hanke

    Many of the designs she created in the movie are remeniscent of the nuns habits

    The film more or less suggests this in the scene where young Gabrielle gives the nuns’ habits a very careful once over at the orphanage.

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