Not being a fashionista, I knew very little about the life of world-famous designer Coco Chanel. Fortunately, Coco Before Chanel has arrived to fill in the gaps. It begins a national roll out tomorrow in LA and NYC. The filmmakers are hopeful about the biopic's Oscar chances, especially when it comes to Audrey Tautou's excellent performance in the title role.
The movie is, befitting its subject, elegant and evocative. It opens with the abandonment of young Gabrielle (who will become Coco) Chanel and her sister by their father at a French orphanage. The black habits of the nuns who run the establishment will later become a source of inspiration for Coco.
Upon turning 18, the girls left the orphanage and found employment as singers and courtesans in a cabaret frequented by soldiers. Here, Coco is discovered by a successful equestrian, Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde). Balsan would introduce Coco to a world of wealth and extravagance in which she initially didn't move easily but would soon rise to the top of.
It was also through Balsan that Coco met Arthur "Boy" Capel, who became the love of her life even while their relationship was doomed to not be a happy one. Capel is played in the film by Alessandro Nivola (Laurel Canyon, Junebug), who has never been better nor sexier. He is an American actor but speaks French here, frequently and perfectly!
Coco Before Chanel epitomizes the term "costume drama," and I fully expect designer Catherine Leterrier to receive an Academy Award nomination for her fine period work in this. (The various Chanel-designed dresses that appear late in the film were loaned to the filmmakers by the Chanel Conservatory.) Alexandre Desplat's musical score is also lovely and likely to be an awards contender.
While it doesn't go into details, the screenplay (by Anne Fontaine, who also directed, and Camille Fontaine with an assist from Dangerous Liaisons' Christopher Hampton) does touch on Chanel's reported bisexuality. This is primarily conveyed through Coco's friendship with Emilienne (a strong turn by Emmanuelle Devos), a former courtesan who becomes a successful actress. When Emilienne asks Coco point blank whether she prefers men or women, Coco nonchalantly responds "skin is skin."
Tautou reveals a growing maturity both as a woman and as an actress via her interpretation of Chanel, who passed away in 1971. It is clear that Tautou has evolved beyond playing wide-eyed naifs such as those in Amélie and A Very Long Engagement, as well as outgrown Hollywood's big-budget attempts at seduction like The Da Vinci Code. She makes Coco Before Chanel worth watching even for those of us largely ignorant of or uninterested in couture.
Click here to watch the trailer for Coco Before Chanel.
UPDATE: Coco Before Chanel is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.