Coco Before Chanel (Coco avant Chanel) is a beautiful, leisurely tale of a little girl named Gabrielle whose mother dies and whose father abandons her and her sister to the care of a Catholic orphanage. It carries us through her young adulthood and leaves us with a glimpse of the great success she would achieve.
Gabrielle and her sister, Adrienne, stay together and become singers in a modest Moulins cabaret, where Adrienne meets and falls in love with a baron, and Gabrielle meets Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), who will greatly influence her future. It is Etienne who nicknames her “Coco,” after a dog in a song she and Adrienne sing in the cabaret.
Audrey Tautou is Coco, and she plays her as strong, independent, somewhat manipulative, and driven. Yes, an entrepreneur. She is also quite charming in a very blunt way. This Coco speaks only when she has something to say, and when she chooses to say it, it is often sarcasm. Coco and Etienne briefly become lovers, then part friends when he returns to his family home in Paris. Adrienne (Marie Gillain) also leaves Coco for Paris, to marry the baron. They are in love, but end up “living in the shadows,” for his family will never accept a poor, orphaned girl; they refuse to even meet Adrienne. One of the interesting aspects of Coco Before Chanel is its subtle commentary on class.
Coco, with few options, packs her bags and shows up on Etienne Balsan’s doorstep. Clearly she wasn’t expecting to find he lived in a castle. When she is shown to her room, its richness (and private bath) nearly overwhelms her. Although Etienne thinks she is an overnight visitor, he is soon captivated and manipulated into making her a household fixture — his concubine, but an invisible one. When he entertains guests, she is not to be seen, and at first she abides by this condition. Again, class is the distinction here. No matter how pretty or clever or bright one may be, a lower class woman may not socialize with the upper class. Coco, of course, defies this convention as well as so many others. She eventually falls in love with one of his business acquaintances (Alessandro Nivola as “Boy” Capel), who actually asks Etienne’s permission to take Coco away for a weekend by the sea.
Audrey Tautou wonderfully interprets Coco’s evolution from a somewhat boyish young adult who scoffs at love blossoming into a woman enraptured. Her emotional awakening is accompanied by her realization that she has the potential to be more than a mistress. That thud we hear is the other shoe falling, when Coco learns that Boy is to be married to an Englishwoman. Love’s labor is not lost here; Boy and Coco continue their relationship nonetheless. In a scene reminiscent of Streep and Redford in Out of Africa, we are telegraphed their tragic ending when he takes off in his “racing car,” promising to return the next day.
The able cast delivers loving, gentle characters with whom we can identify (perhaps not with their stations in life, but what they feel), and writer/director Anne Fontaine firmly guides this production away from the melodramatic path it could have taken. Instead of focusing on the glamorous world of high fashion, she introduces us to a simple woman who believes that clothing should be comfortable. At the very end, we are treated to stunning models descending a sweeping, mirrored staircase to the world’s applause, all beautifully dressed in Chanel’s creations. Coco Before Chanel is much like Coco’s fashions — elegant.
In addition to a commentary with Anne Fontaine, the special features include two that give some insight into the real Coco Chanel (“The Making of Coco Before Chanel” and “Coco Before Chanel: ‘La Rencontre’ [‘The Meeting’”]), a woman who was able to reinvent herself as necessary, revolutionizing fashion and women’s lives in the process. Cast and crew members discuss the intricacies of making a biographical movie and address the necessity of invention. (In all biopics, there are times when reality morphs into a writer’s fancy; most can be considered “inspired by the life of…” This is not negative criticism but a reminder that viewers should never accept the screen version as fact. Mel Brooks taught us that even Hitler’s life can be comical in the hands of a creative screenwriter.) Also included are “Walking the Red Carpet: From Los Angeles to New York,” and theatrical trailers.
The Bottom Line: Would I buy or rent Coco Before Chanel? Yes, it is a film well worth experiencing.