As the title clearly indicates, the Gallic import Coco Before Chanel explores the life of fashion maven Coco Chanel before she changed her name, became famous and started pasting her initials all over expensive handbags. While bolstered by the magnetic central performance of the always-charming Audrey Tautou (Amélie) and some damn fine period re-creation, Coco Before Chanel is also restrained by slow pacing and a general lack of drama. To put it in fashion terms, the details are stunning, but the overall shape is somewhat lacking.
Born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel in 1883, Coco was abandoned at a young age with her older sister at a nun-filled French orphanage. Shortly after the opening credits—which could pass for a lovely, art-house version of Madeline—the film picks up Coco (Tautou) and her sister Adrienne (Marie Gillain) as turn-of-the-century teens trying to earn a few francs singing dance-hall tunes in a rowdy rural tavern. Given their penniless background, the girls have few more promising options. Their best bet, it would seem, is to attract the attentions of some wealthy Parisian.
But Coco isn’t like other girls. She’s a hardhearted realist who isn’t altogether happy with the restrictive etiquette of her day. She gets relatively little satisfaction from being a “kept” woman. She wishes she could earn her own way in life instead of just marrying into money. And—almost as a side note here—she bristles at the lingering conventions of Victorian fashion: the suffocating corsets, the never-ending hemlines, the towering, ostrich-feathered hats.
For a film about one of the fashion industry’s biggest icons, Coco Before Chanel seems relatively uninterested in clothing. While it’s perfectly natural for a biopic to focus on a famous person before they got famous, Coco Before Chanel spends far more time establishing what formed young Coco’s notions of love and marriage than her notions of tailleur and accoutrement.
As portrayed in the film, Coco Chanel isn’t the warmest of protagonists. She’s a resolutely unsentimental tough cookie who will go on to found a 20th-century business empire—which is why it’s a little odd to find her stranded in what is essentially a 19th-century drawing room romance.
Eventually trading her French sugar daddy for a handsome young Englishman (Alessandro Nivola from Face/Off and Junebug), Coco explores her matrimonial options but keeps running up against the age-old Jane Austen dilemma: Stinking-rich Europeans only marry other stinking-rich Europeans.
Given the very models of disappointment men provided her with throughout the course of her young life, it’s not hard to see what formed Coco’s notions of feminine independence. As the film trudges on in standard period romance mode, however, one can’t help but think Coco Before Chanel kind of misses the boat. Or to be more precise, shows up well before the boat sails.
With Coco languishing in rural France and champing at the bit to become her own woman, with the conservative Victorian era dying away, with the Jazz Age about to burst out across the face of Europe, we can easily foresee the sort of magic this woman is going to create. That Chanel soon gave the world both the Little Black Dress and the Power Suit isn’t at all shocking. But it would have been nice to have seen a bit more of that millinery magic. A flash-forward final scene does put a triumphant capper on Chanel’s life; but as a viewer, I can’t help but feel we got cheated out of some mighty exciting, mighty stylish years in between.
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