For a woman whose name is synonymous with all that is chic, luxurious and exclusive, Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel began life in decidedly unsophisticated circumstances. Coco Before Chanel traces Chanel’s early life from an abandoned 12-year-old raised by nuns to fashion powerhouse exhibiting her radiant collections in Paris.
Most of Coco Before Chanel takes place in the early 20th century. After the obligatory scenes to establish a tragic childhood (dad drops her off at the orphanage, strict nuns float around in their elaborate wimples) we meet Chanel (Audrey Tatou) when she is some years older working as a cabaret singer in a country tavern. It is here that she first encounters Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), heir to a textile fortune and man about town.
In spite of not liking him very much, Chanel becomes Balsan’s mistress. She moves into his chateau and enjoys horseback riding and fancy parties on the condition that she satisfy Balsan in the bedroom and entertain his friends. While living with Balsan, Chanel is exposed to high society and aristocracy, develops her unique sense of style, and falls in love, though not with Balsan.
Coco Before Chanel (as the title suggests) is almost entirely focused on the period of Coco’s life before she became successful and famous. While living with Balsan, Chanel was defined by the men in her life: Balsan, of course, and later Arthur “Boy” Capal (Alessandro Nivola), an English friend of Balsan’s with whom she fell in love. Chanel was a compelling and influential figure, and her time as Balsan’s mistress certainly helped define the icon she became. Considering Chanel’s legacy, watching a film that depicted her transition between unruly mistress to innovative designer might have been more interesting than one solely concerned with her early years as a kept woman.
Not that Chanel’s many man dramas aren’t interesting. It’s worth noting that Chanel had strings of lovers her whole life, and not just as a young woman. Some of these, like the Duke of Windsor, were more high profile than Balsan or Capal. The film suffers because Coco’s relationships with Balsan and Capal feel somehow lacking. Director Anne Fontaine and the producers of the film describe these ambiguous relationships as modern. Perhaps it’s a cultural difference, but Chanel’s love affairs with her men feel hollow and unrealized. Coco’s ultimate affection and regard for Balsan even after he’s treated her so poorly is particularly difficult to swallow.
Coco Before Chanel (like so many French films before it) succeeds in making smoking look damn sexy. From the beginning of the movie, we often see Coco with a cigarette. She’s matter of fact, plain and casual, and the way she smokes helps to masculinize her in an era when women couldn’t wear too many rosettes and ruffles.
Tatou is a lovely model for Chanel. Coco’s classic tailored dresses, suits, and boat-neck tees fit like they were made to hang on Tatou’s frame. But Tatou lacks the dramatic chops required to portray a figure like Chanel. Tatou spends much of the film being sullen and watchful, and in an attempt to be subtle underplays the part. More important, she’s simply not tough enough.
I watched Coco Before Chanel with a friend who fell asleep. After the movie was over, she told me, “I’m sure it was very well done. It just made me tired.”
Coco Before Chanel is well done—to-die-for costumes and period details, fine cinematography and beautiful locations—but that’s about it. Poor pacing and competent, yet uninspired performances compromise the film. Anne Fontaine stresses that she wanted to tell the story of an icon before she became said icon. The trouble is, an audience still needs to be invested in the character regardless of her future preeminence. Unfortunately, if we care about Coco Before Chanel, it’s because our grandmothers wore her clothes and not due to the rare inspired moments in the film.
The Special Features section of Coco Before Chanel is satisfyingly extensive. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys behind the scenes featurettes, you won’t be disappointed.
There’s The Making of Coco Before Chanel which features extensive interviews with director Anne Fontaine, many members of the cast, producers, art directors, and costume designers. After watching The Making of Coco Before Chanel, I was a bit more forgiving of Fontaine’s choices about which parts of Chanel’s life and personality she chose to highlight. Tatou, Poelvoorde and Nivola all speak extensively as well.
Coco Before Chanel: La Rencontre (The Meeting) features additional commentary and interviews from actors and directors, and is essentially a continuation of the making of feature. Walking the Red Carpet: From Los Angeles to New York is footage of the actors at premiers, and contains recordings of after and pre film discussions with Fontaine and the actors.