It’s a good thing that Audrey Tatou is so fabulous in Coco Before Chanel. In fact, everything about director Anne Fontaine’s gorgeous biography of famous fashion icon Coco Chanel is wonderful ... except the script, which is kind of a major flaw. If you’re going to build a story around “who someone was before they were the celebrity they became,” you need to find a more compelling, less plodding way than Fontaine does.
Chanel rose from poverty and an upbringing in a Catholic orphanage to become one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century. Her exquisite and sophisticated design ethic buried the excesses of the early 1900's fashions for a simpler, more comfortable silhouette that showcased the beauty of the woman who wore Chanel’s hats and dresses. Her affairs with women were not hidden and scandalized people, yet she lived life on her own terms.
Tatou makes a striking and strong-willed Gabrielle, nicknamed “Coco” after a dog in a song she and her sister regularly performed in a bar. The film leaves out Chanel’s three brothers and another sister, and simplifies her life to the point of dullness. We’re shown that she didn’t like corsets, had two relationships with men, only one of which mattered to her, and that she was given to embellishing on her humble beginnings.
That’s about all there is to the film, although within that dull framework we’re treated to a number of engaging scenes by the top-notch cast (also including Alessandro Nivola and Benoît Poelvoorde). While there is one scene where Coco is asked about her sexual orientation, her reply that “skin is skin” seems more intended to shock the inquisitor than a true admission of bisexuality.
Coco Before Chanel doesn’t reveal anything a cursory look at her Wikipedia entry couldn’t tell you, although even that is infinitely more complex and interesting. Go for Tatou, the fashion and the beautiful period styling and you’re less likely to pooh-pooh Coco.
UPDATE: Coco Before Chanel is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.