Coco Before Chanel (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13)

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 The story of Chanel’s life before she became famous is told in Anne Fontaine’s film Coco Before Chanel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, the woman who gave us the little black dress and designer perfume, didn’t come from the most promising of origins. Born in a poorhouse in 1883 and deposited in an orphanage after the death of her mother, she learned to take care of herself from an early age. France offered few opportunities for a girl with no money and no family, so Chanel capitalized on what she did have; beauty, determination and a sharply critical eye.

The story of Chanel’s life before she became famous is told in Anne Fontaine’s film Coco Before Chanel. It begins with Gabrielle (Lisa Cohen as a child, Audrey Tautou as a young adult) and her sister Adrienne (Inès Bessalem, then Marie Gillain) being unceremoniously dumped at the orphanage. Through the pain and hurt we can also see that the young Gabrielle’s attention is drawn to the stitching on the nuns’ wimples. Jump ahead a few years and Gabrielle and Adrienne are performing in a music hall: a song about a lost dog named Coco provides Gabrielle with the nickname she will use for the rest of her life.

Socializing with the patrons is part of the job and Coco attracts the attention of the wealthy and cynical Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde in a complex performance). Realizing that the road out of poverty requires attaching herself to a man of means, Coco shows up uninvited at Balsan’s country estate and refuses to leave, virtually demanding to be taken in as his mistress. Adrienne has a similar arrangement except that she believes, at least at first, that the major who supports her is also going to marry her. Both sisters realize that it’s far better to be kept by one man, even if he hides you out of sight and lets you know that he can dump you back on the street any time he feels like it, than to ply your trade to anyone and everyone as do the prostitutes in the music hall they recently left.

While living with Balsan, Coco attracts the attention of one of his business partners, the Englishman Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola), known as “Boy.” Coco and Boy fall for each other (notably the only time she does not see her own circumstances clearly), but if you think that romance will go anywhere I have a bridge to sell you: Boy is marrying for money which means Coco is out of luck. But first he loaned Coco the money to set up a shop in Paris and thus set her on the path to becoming a world-famous designer.

As an outsider Coco can see how ridiculous the contemporary conventions of women’s fashions are: corsets restrict your breathing, layers of cloth hide your figure, huge hats to weigh down your head and everywhere there is an excess of decoration which destroys any natural beauty you may possess. Her first success is a simple straw hat which the actress (and former mistress of Balsan) Emilienne d’Alençon (Emmanuelle Devos in a generous performance) wears to great effect on stage.

Coco also adapts men’s clothing to suit herself, foreshadowing the simplicity and elegance which remain the leading characteristics of the Chanel line. The film ends with a montage of Coco’s rise to fame, concluding with a stunning scene of a seemingly infinite parade of models descending a mirrored staircase. It’s a perfect demonstration of what could be the guiding principle of Chanel’s life: it’s not where you start that counts but where you finish. The fact that this scene is almost a direct quote from the 1969 musical Coco doesn’t lessen its power.

The script (adapted by Anne and Camille Fontaine from the biography by Edmonde Charles-Roux) adheres closely to biopic conventions but is brought alive by the magnetic performance of Tautou with strong support particularly from Poelvoorde and Devos. Coco Before Chanel is also beautiful to look at: production design by Olivier Radot, cinematography by Christophe Beaucarne, and costume design by Catherine Leterrier beautifully evoke turn-of-the-century France.

As viewed by director Anne Fontaine, Coco Chanel is not a lovable character: she’s hard as nails, frequently rude and always looking out for number one. But what would you expect given her circumstances? Without that toughness she never would have been able to share her gifts with the world. | Sarah Boslaugh

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