The premise of Coco Before Chanel is somewhat fanciful. Ostensibly telling the story of Chanel before she became legendary, it allows her to seem vulnerable, sweet, and young, if not conventionally feminine. It even grants her an effectively humble start, specifically in 1893, when 10-year-old Gabrielle and her sister Adrienne are delivered to an orphanage by their dour, mustachioed father. From Gabrielle’s view of trees and sky from the cart he’s driving, the shot cuts back to her next interest, the nuns’ crisp outfits. Still another cut to her wide eyes reveals they are less frightened than resilient, if not calculating. In this moment, the movie only enhances the usual mythologizing of its subject’s self-creation. “I waited for my father every Sunday,” she says in voiceover. “He never came back.” Even before she was Coco, she was Chanel.
The process of her self-invention is somewhat abbreviated and contrived in the film, adapted by director Anne Fontaine and her sister Camille from Edmonde Charles-Roux’s book, L’Irrégulière: ou, Mon itinéraire Chanel. When the post-orphanage Coco as (played by Audrey Tatou) appears in1908, she is emphatically chimerical, both perky and poised. She and Adrienne (Marie Gillain) are singing in a Moulins saloon when spotted by the millionaire Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde). His flirtations seem hardly to impress Coco—who takes her nickname from a tune she performs—though she does plainly appreciate his money (he owns racehorses, among other things). Cynical if self-consciously charming (“The only interesting thing about love,” she pronounces, “Is making love, and too bad you need a guy to do it”), Coco is soon out of work when her sister marries. And so she delivers herself to Étienne’s country estate, figuring that he might as well support her while she figures out what to do next.
Étienne agrees to let her stay a couple of days, and when these are over, he arranges for her transportation whence she came. Coco, however, comes to a different decision, demonstrated in a scene where she dismisses the waiting car and marches back inside the house. Here the film indulges in one of its many collapses of her resourcefulness and artistry, showing her cut up and refit one of Étienne’s shirts in order to design a riding outfit. Transformed into a stylishly boyish figure, she rides a horse out to the field where Étienne is reclining with his guests, providing unexpected entertainment. While she exhibits here intelligence and ingenuity, she is also doing what she does best, putting on a show in order to survive.
Here she also meets and enchants the actress Emilienne (Emmanuelle Devos), vibrant and confident and in search of a new look. Eventually, she anoints Coco her new costume designer, thus exposing her creations to an ever-widening audience of theatergoers. As the women laugh and bond despite and because of their class differences, the film underscores the paradox of Coco, who repeatedly seems to be “liberating” herself (and other women, by extension) from corsets and hats with too many feathers and other fusty fashions, even as she dresses up women for men.
Coco’s story takes a turn toward tragedy (à la La Vie en Rose, the 2007 Edith Piaf biopic) when she meets another of Étienne’s playmates, Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola), an English industrialist and polo player. When he “borrows” Coco from Étienne for a weekend away at Deauville (“It’s the first time I’ve seen the sea!”), she is inspired by the fishermen’s striped sweaters to design still more boyish wear for women (the film also includes here a scene where she more or less comes up with the idea of the “little black dress,” imprecise historically, and too cute plot-wise). Their romance is odd and imbalanced and apparently very meaningful, for when she loses Boy, Coco is devastated and duly moved to become Chanel Big Time.
This transition is indicated in an anachronistic—and bizarre and lovely—scene where Chanel watches a collection of her signature dresses head out for a show. The women who pass her while she watches from a not-quite-backstage stairway are increasingly faceless as the camera closes on her own rather perfect, still perky, now also poignant visage. The composition’s sharp angles and elegant lines all speak to the iconic Chanel (the film makes no mention of her notorious anti-Semitism or Nazi collaboration).
She looks so sad and alone here, even if, you might guess, she is also feeling proud and fierce and professional. She understood business as much as art, though the film seems unwilling to see this. The scene underscores the costs of her success, in a story turn that feels clichéd, no matter how true or untrue it may be. In this moment, Coco Before Chanel cannot get out from under the romantic fabrications and excesses that ostensibly annoyed its subject.