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Coco Before Chanel

Audrey Tautou Plays Famous Designer

Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Above: "Coco Before Chanel"


Host Maureen Cavanaugh and film critics Beth Accomando and Scott Marks talk about Coco Before Chanel.

“Coco Before Chanel” (opening October 2 at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas) not only looks at the famous designer before she became a brand but also offers us a French actress in the role after American actresses Katherine Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine have both essayed the part. You can also listen to our discussion of the film from the September Film Club.

Coco in her later years was the subject of the Broadway musical “Coco” in 1969 with Katherine Hepburn nabbing a Tony nomination for her work. Then in 2008 the TV movie “Coco Chanel” featured Shirley MacLaine as the 70-year-old designer. “Coco Before Chanel” is the first of two films focusing on the younger years of the famous trendsetter. The other film is “Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky,” whose title is rather self-explanatory. But all these works delicately avoid the period of time that she had an affair with a Nazi officer and her self-imposed exile to Switzerland to avoid repercussions for what has been called “horizontal collaboration.”

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

"Coco Before Chanel"

But back to “Coco Before Chanel.” The film begins with young Gabrielle Chanel (Audrey Tautou) being left at an orphanage and taught needlework by nuns. She initially tries to forge a singing career with her sister Adrienne (Marie Gallain) and ended up adopting the name Coco from a raunchy song but never – as you probably already know – making a career out of singing. She works as a tailor but ends up falling into an affair with a wealthy older gentleman named Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), who happily provides for her so long as she stays out of sight when his rich friends drop by. Insistent on remaining single and defiant in the face of social expectations, Coco eventually falls for handsome Englishman (Alessandro Nivola), who goes by the nickname of “Boy.” He helps her establish her first business and the rest I guess is history.

Written and directed by Anne Fontaine (who also made the recent “The Girl From Monaco”), the film does approach Chanel from a fresh perspective and avoids most of the expectations one might have of a biopic about her. We get a sense of how Chanel looked at the world, what angered her, what intrigued her, where she found inspiration for her designs. Her revolutionary idea was that women should be comfortable in their clothes and that simplicity was often more elegant than frilly flamboyance.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

"Coco Before Chanel"

But the problem with focusing on this period of her life is that Chanel is more interesting than the two men she spends time with, and it is a period of time when not much is really happening. At the very end of the film we get a glimpse of the fashions she created later in her life but there’s nothing to connect those early years with the brief fashion show at the end. We only get a hint of her business savvy and only a glimpse of her fashion flair. I would have preferred less time with the men who were not that interesting and maybe spent more time with Coco at work or with the female characters that were more interesting.

Fontaine delivers Chanel’s story with an elegance that complements her subject yet I never felt like we got inside her character or close to her. But then Coco doesn’t seem like a character that opens herself up to others.

“Coco Before Chanel” (rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking, and in French with English subtitles) looks good and is well acted; yet it lacks a spark. It provided a glimpse into Chanel life and hints at insights about what made her tick but in the end it feels mostly like surfaces.

Companion viewing: “Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky,” “The Girl From Monaco,” “Amelie”

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