All those years of buying Chanel No. 5 for my mom and never once did I give a thought to there being a woman behind the perfume – or a story behind the woman. Coco Before Chanel imagines what that story might have been.
As the title suggests, the movie relates how Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel (Audrey Tautou of Amélie and The Da Vinci Code) overcame her life as an orphan and how she earned her nickname ‘Coco’ while working as a somewhat sleazy nightclub singer.
From there, we see how she rode the broad shoulders of several of society’s best men straight up to the top of the staircase, reached out, and grasped the prize. She became the fashion icon we now know. But it wasn’t without some heartache and tragedy.
A liaison with Baron Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), a fatherly figure, allows her initial entrée into French society as well as a chance to develop her penchant for designing increasingly popular and decidedly non-frilly hats. But it was her passionately reckless romance with English businessman Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel (Alessandro Nivola) that most sent her down a one-way melancholy path.
Capel’s nickname is as descriptive as Chanel’s is aloof. He’s a living, breathing manifestation of the ‘bad boy’ archetype – a boyish, irresponsible, and deliriously irresistible man. He sweeps her off to places that seem fantastical to her orphan eyes and he makes love to her in one place after another with abandon. He’s a memorable rogue, the best thing in the movie.
I’ve never been terribly enamored with Tautou. When surrounded by all of the fancy visual flourishes of Amélie, she managed to effectively obscure that she’s a pretty-faced nothing. The Da Vinci Code then exposed her limited range for all to see. Tautou tries to cover the emotional emptiness by chain-smoking and it almost works. I’ve always loved the sight of smoke swirling around a beautiful actress.
In a way though, Tautou is fine for the role of Chanel – or at least this depiction of her. Chanel is a blank canvas on which Balsan and Capel – and fate – create art. It’s like a variation on Henry Higgins’ transforming of Eliza Doolittle into a high society woman in My Fair Lady. But both stories also suggest a woman waiting just beneath the surface and wanting to be transformed, a woman Tautou never sees.
The movie is visually splendid with the kind of pastoral scenes of the easy life that always make me wish I’d been so privileged and that always leave me wondering what these people who sit around all day reading books of philosophy do to pay the rent. The movie makes country lakes look especially intoxicating.
Tautou may not be the most expressive actress around, but she does have her moments during the final minutes. There’s an emotional moment – conveyed as much by the camera as by Tautou – that, of course, is inevitable when a young woman is drawn too close to a bad boy’s flame.
And then there is the ending, one of the best I’ve seen in a great while. Placed atop a staircase for all eyes to admire, the new Coco Chanel sits, her transformation applauded by characters within the movie. (Not much applause in the theater when I saw it though. There were only two of us.)
It’s a closing image that made me really curious to see Coco After Chanel – which I understand has something to do with Igor Stravinsky. Hopefully though, it will be without Tautou.