Coco Before Chanel


(Coco Avant Chanel)


Sony Classics Sep 25


The story of the real Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, the legendary French fashion designer, must have been far more interesting and compelling than the conventional and stodgy biopic we get in “Coco Before Chanel, “Anne Fontaine's selective, partial, and biased biopic of the early life of the internationally famous fashionista.


“Coco Before Chanel” has already opend in France (thus the poster) and in other European countries, such as the U.K.  Sony Classics will release the film stateside on Sept 25, after the Toronto Film Fest.

Chanel has intrigued biographers and filmmakers for decades, with numerous books (over 40 they say), stage shows, and movies about her life, personality, and work.   In 1969, there was the Broadway musical “Coco,” with Katharine Hepburn, then a TV min-series “Coco Chanel,” with Shirley MacLaine.  And this year alone, there are two biopics about her, though neither satisfying, “Coco Before Chanel” and “Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky,” about the rumored relationship between Chanel and the noted musician, which was the closing night of the 2009 Cannes Film Fest in May.


“Coco Before Chanel” suffers from a banal narrative that's too neat, with a clear arch of upward mobility and professional success, if also failure to achieve personal happiness.  In Fontaine's version, Coco begins her life as a headstrong orphan, and through a bizarre and extraordinary journey becomes a legendary couturier, an embodiment of the modern woman (she never married), a timeless symbol of success, freedom and style.


Done in an old-fashioned style, with decorative but not sumptuous production values, Coco Before Chanel” is the kind of reserved and tasteful middlebrow entertainment that would make Ismail-Merchant proud. The movie tries to elicit sympathy for, or at least understanding of Chanel without even mentioning (not even in title cards) her controversial politics and collaboration with the Nazis when France was occupied by them).


Born on August 19, 1883, into a modest and provincial home, Chanel was orphaned at a young age and grew up, along with her sister, in a convent school.  In the first chapter, set in 1893, we get glimpses of the sad, standing by the window, waiting in vain every Sunday for her father to come for her.


The story then jumps ahead to 15 years later to find Chanel as an assistant in hosiery.  She begins to work as a humble seamstress, stitching hems at the back of a provincial tailor's shop.  Later, she is employed as embroiderer and sewer, jobs that grow boring and monotonous, motivating her to turn her attention to the local cafés-concerts.  As a cabaret performer with a weak voice, Chanel sings to a loud audience of mostly drunken soldiers.  But her lean, gracious figure doesn't go completely unnoticed, and she is applauded by an audience who call her “Coco,” a name that would stay with her forever.


It was at this juncture that Chanel is spotted and immediately adored by Étienne Balsan, a rich racehorse owner. Indeed, her life changes dramatically, when the slender and pale woman becomes a courtesan protected by the much older Balsan, who offers her a safe life amongst the idle rich and decadent.  With him, Chanel discovers the equestrian world, a world that would inspire her throughout her career; she is surrounded with pretentious high-society with women, dressed in hats she thinks look like “pies.”


Standing out from the other ladies in Balsan's entourage, she soon catches the eye of the man who was to become the love of her life, Arthur “Boy” Capel.  A complex love affair ensues, interrupted by the shocking news (to her) that he's married and has no intention to get divorced.  They continue to see each other and “Boy” encourages her to pursue her hat-making, lending her the money to open her first milliner's studio in Paris' rue Cambon, in 1910.


A boutique in the French seaside town of Deauville quickly follows, as do those in Biarritz and Cannes. Chanel's success is meteoric, and a proud, self-sufficient woman, she soon pays Boy Capel back every penny he had lent her. This particular saga ends on an upbeat note, with Chanel as a firm woman determined never to be anyone's wife, utterly committed to her métier.


Sporadically, we get insights into Chanel's eccentric behavior, depicting her, for example, as a rebel who finds the social conventions and mores of her time oppressive for independent femme like her; she often dresses in her lovers' clothes.


It's impossible to tell whether the usually reliable Audrey Tautou (who was so charming in “Amélie” and other French films but no so good in American ones) is miscast in the title role, or simply out of her element and depth for she often looks lost and comes across as too detached and unmotivated.  To be fair, there's no doubt that Tautou's performance is handicapped by the mediocre level of this joyless melodrama, credited to helmer Anne Fontaine and her sister Camille Fontaine, with the collaboration of Christopher Hampton (“Oscar-winner for “Dangerous Liaisons”), which is very loosely based on “L'irrégulière,” by Edmonde Charles-Roux.