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Directed by Anne Fontaine
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Coco before Chanel
It’s so rare that so-called biopics have an interest for us as a film rather than as a reciting of their subject’s life (think “Amelia”) that we can be grateful to “Coco Before Chanel” because it has a fascinating story and an almost novelistic unraveling of its subject. Coco Chanel (played here by Audrey Tautou) was probably the defining incarnation of fashion in the twentieth century, bringing women out of corsets and petticoats and into a wardrobe fitted to their bodies rather than to some ideal of Victorian womanhood.
More than that, though, Coco Chanel was a fascinating and difficult woman to know, and director Anne Fontaine is able to give us a sense of that complexity without slowing her film down with details. Coco – who was named Gabrielle – and her sister Marie – were left at an orphanage by their father when they were perhaps seven or eight. Cut to fifteen years later, and they are a duo singing racy songs at a cafe for an audience of slumming men and the whores who service them, where their only chance for a better life will be to find a man and be his mistress – never his wife, however.
Marie finds a baron and installs herself as his mistress; Coco tries to make it alone but is taken up by a wealthy man named Ētienne Balsan, who owns race-horses and entertains constantly. He tries to keep Coco hidden from his upper-class guests, but she insists on joining them. She is busy sewing her own hats and clothes, and begins making hats for Balsan’s other women. When people ask her about her youth, she makes up different stories; to this day, in fact, no one really knows what exactly was the truth.
While at Balsan’s she falls in love with a man known by the nickname Boy (Alessandro Nivola), an Englishman who tells her that he is rich and has made his fortune in the coal business. He says he’ll marry her and take her with him to England, but the reality turns out to be quite different, and then he dies in an auto accident.
The welcome surprise in “Coco Before Chanel” is Audrey Tautou, who plays Coco with a wonderful steeliness and the allure of mystery about her. Now in her thirties, she has matured far beyond her winsome charm as Amelie, though her glorious overbite is still, thank God, with her. In addition, director Anne Fontaine has composed shots that are luscious in every way without being imitative of other period pieces. In addition, she has removed Tautou’s air of childlike innocence without making her a cipher; she is the most fascinating person in the film, perhaps rivaled only by Benoit Poelvoorde who plays the wealthy Balsan, who cannot marry her but loves her anyway.