I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this film, especially since I knew virtually nothing about the woman behind the logo (other than the fact that I can't quite afford her legacy’s designer duds...yet). I was pleasantly surprised, however, that Coco Avant Chanel provides an interesting though slightly muted back story for Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, who even after her death in 1971 remains one of the most celebrated fashion designers in the world today.
Although the film takes a few minor liberties with her actual biography, it manages to stick fairly close to history, covering Coco’s early years and leading up to her initial success, first as a hat maker and later as an innovative designer. The audience is first introduced to nine-year-old Coco and her sister Emilienne as they are dropped off at an orphanage by their own father. Despite such a humble beginning, she learns to sew from the nuns, a skill that obviously propels her down the aforementioned fashion runway later in life. At the age of 20, she meets millionaire Etienne Belsan (Poelvoorde) in the saloon where she sings at night with her sister (and thus earns the lifelong nickname of “Coco”). Soon she is living with Belsan, entertaining his guests, learning to ride a horse like a man, and cutting up his clothes to make more comfortable and slightly boyish ensembles. Her quiet rebellion and resistance to uncomfortably tight clothing, corsets, and ostentatious accessories make her a hit with Belsan’s weathy guests and more notably, with Belsan himself.
Despite this, Coco is skittish to the concept of love and declares that she will never marry. She maintains this stance throughout her life, even after she begrudgingly falls for Arthur “Boy” Capel (Nivola), a friend of Belsan with even more money and an even greater desire for her. Both men prove to be instrumental in her future business ventures, and soon women across the country are sporting her carefully crafted hats and later, her couture suits and gowns. I won’t give away the “ending,” so to speak, and precisely because of where it ends, some may find it rather anti-climactic. Still, the film provides a peek into the life of the woman who pioneered the first pair of women’s pants and dared to forgo stuffy societal restrictions in favor of a more classic yet comfortable style.
Audrey Tautou (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement) is charismatic and engaging as always, even while playing the understated but willful Coco. Indie film fans may recognize Nivola from his performance in Junebug (another good one to check out). Although Coco Avant Chanel will have a tough time competing for U.S. audiences against bigger (and likely recycled) cinematic fanfare, it could also prove to be a much needed break while providing a glimpse into the life of the orphan girl who went on to create a fashion empire.