Like reality television, the fashion industry is something I’ve managed to avoid my entire life. The idea of someone spiffing themselves up because a small collection of superfluous individuals say it’s cool is preposterous. Coco Before Chanel documents the life of fashion design’s arguably biggest name but with a twist maybe only her devoted fans can completely appreciate. Still, those ignorant to her life can enjoy its aesthetic quality like any other work of fiction.
Audrey Tautou is Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, who starts as an orphan girl with aspirations for the big time. Coco works at a cabaret, singing tunes for rowdy customers she sometimes gets nasty with on the side. After getting fired, she tries to find work elsewhere but ends up being taken in by the wealthy Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), whom she had a one-night stand with. But soon Coco meets Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola), who notices that she has a talent for design — and the rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
If you weren’t aware, Coco Chanel was one of the biggest fashion designers ever. However, what you must realize before delving into director Anne Fontaine’s biographical journey is that she really does focus more on the “before” aspect. If you’re looking for a creative nonfiction piece on Chanel’s business dealings, you won’t get much here. For better or worse, we’re tossed right into Chanel’s love life, or lack thereof.
Our story isn’t anything the general public isn’t familiar with. As the film centers on a pre-fame Coco, we witness her yearning to rise above the mundane lower class and ascend to ultimate stardom. Love becomes both a release and harbinger for Coco, as we see her go through the motions on a trial and error basis. Maybe the results will hold some surprise for you, but if you know her history in the slightest, the finale will be about as surprising as finding out Anakin Skywalker turns into Darth Vader.
Coco Before Chanel isn’t shabby by any means. The characters are fun to play with, and all that happens just about makes perfect sense. Because it’s a biographical piece, the turn of events feels more plausible. We get hints of Coco’s sewing prowess, and her criticism of the era’s fashion show her as a real forward thinker. If the film were to do away with these pieces, it’d be a generic romantic drama with little sense of invention. Coco’s destined career acts as a crutch to propel us through the story. This may sound like a flaw, but it’s necessary and highlights Coco’s determination to succeed. Still, you do wonder if Coco just caught the luckiest of all breaks, being at the right places at all the right times and utilizing the right abilities to make the right friends. Fate must have had an eye for Coco, but this is just speculation, and I admit that I know virtually nothing about her than what’s shown here.
The performances here are top tier. Tautou does another great job at playing a lovably snappy character. We come to admire her drive and actually hope she gets everything she’s hoping for. Meanwhile, Poelvoorde is the yin to Coco’s yang; he plays both villain and savior, as sketchy of a character as he is melancholy. Nivola’s role is another that we love and hate, stepping in whenever Poelvoorde’s comes up short.
Overall, Coco Before Chanel is a colorful film with gorgeous costumes, a beautifully-conceived ending, and a story that works but could still use a little tweaking. Don’t expect to watch Coco rise to power here, but do expect her to see her fall in and out of love while honing her craft on the sly. This is a solid movie, though unless you’re a Chanel disciple, there’s no real reason to rush out and rent it.