Considering the well-trodden choice of those heading down the biopic route is to smooth out the rough edges of the main subject, it’s a testament to director Anne Fontaine’s faith in Audrey Tatou’s innate likeability that she allows her to portray Gabrielle -Coco’ Chanel as a generally moody, often unsympathetic loner in this beautifully shot, if occasionally dull portrait of the French fashion legend.
Coco Before Chanel is actually filled with characters that the audience may find hard to pin down. Aside from Tatou’s stand out performance there’s Etienne, the playboy millionaire who takes Coco into his home in the countryside, to confuse audiences as well. Played with some amount of charm by Benoit Poelvoorde, Etienne is at various points the jealous boyfriend, borderline sex pest, benevolent benefactor not to mention bizarre father figure. A character the audience is never sure whether or not to trust, Poelvoorde’s performance is worth giving over 105 minutes alone.
Elsewhere there are some nice touches from American actor Alessandro Nivola as Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, the love interest with a secret who manages to bring some measure of happiness to Chanel. It’s Tatou though who most will talk of when leaving the cinema of course. And while she is excellent, her work is often undone by pedestrian pacing and a script which never quite gets us under Chanel’s skin.
Beginning with a swift pace that unfortunately is not a sign of things to come, the opening scene sees Chanel abandoned at an orphanage by her father in the wake of her mother’s death. We’re then brought forward almost immediately to see the young adult Chanel forming half of a cabaret duo in a dingy bar in the south of France.
It’s here that she meets Etienne who, after failing to launch her musical career, is surprised when the seamstress-by-day follows him home to the countryside where she plays his secret lover obediently at first before becoming the talk of his social set with her left of centre fashion sense and penchant for redesigning the hats of various ladies of stature.
The mid-section of Coco Before Chanel, where Tatou first meets Capel who forms part of Etienne’s social set, undoubtedly drags with Fontaine perhaps a little too in love with her surroundings. All the gorgeous, longing shots of the French countryside in the world won’t save a good 30-minute stretch where little happens though. However, once the Chanel/Capel love story really kicks in there’s a sense of urgency to proceedings that brings the whole movie up a few notches, helped along by Tatou seizing this turning point for Chanel to give added emotion to what had previously been a fairly cold exterior.
Neither the by-the-numbers biopic nor the sweeping piece of beauty it longs to be, there is however enough quality in the performances and the majority of the direction to warrant a look.
Director: Anne Fontaine.
Starring: Audrey Tautou, BenoÃ®t Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola, Emmanuelle Devos
Running Time: 105 minutes.