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Coco Before Chanel

Chanel No. 1: Coco Before Chanel

At the end of Coco Before Chanel, a brief text appears on-screen to inform us that Coco Chanel, the pioneering internationally renowned French couturier, made her fiercely independent way to achieve a commanding position in a man’s world. Anne Fontaine’s richly and convincingly situated film about Chanel’s early life ends with her on the lower slopes of her ascent to fashion-industry greatness. That it also portrays a young woman who must insinuate her way into the good graces of powerful men in order to gain a toehold on the world where her unprecedented success could develop is apparently an unintended irony.

That muted contradiction may reflect the actual terms of survival, not to mention richly rewarded success, that Gabrielle Chanel (Audrey Tautou) had to master. The pre-war belle époque featured considerable social and class change but there were still very poor prospects for girls of Chanel’s perilously humble origins. The movie opens with a series of starkly resonant shots of a little girl being abandoned by her father at a Catholic orphanage in 1893. True to her later persona, she harbors no illusions that he will rescue, or even visit, her.

Fifteen years later, she and her scarcely older aunt Adrienne (Marie Gillain) are singing in a smoky bistro and working as seamstresses during the day. (Their performance of the song “Coco at the Trocadero” gives her a new name.) Like the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, I sat through the movie believing that Adrienne was Coco’s sister. This misunderstanding was induced by Coco’s intermittent carelessness with facts, but Fontaine—who co-wrote the script—may have felt challenged by the obfuscatory self-creation that Chanel engaged in after she began to attract attention and curiosity.

It’s in that bar that she cooly receives and files a good-natured overture by the patrician Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), to whose country home she eventually escapes for a respite from her hardships. What he agreeably regards as a short-term liaison, Chanel ingeniously and pertinaciously extends until it becomes unprecedentedly serious for this genial and cynical hedonist. (Poelvoorde gives the film’s best and most amusing performance.) When another self-created personality, the English investment advisor Arthur “Boy” Capel (Allesandro Nivola), arrives on this scene and takes an empathetic shine to Chanel, the foundation of her extraordinary career begins to form.

Along with the usual difficulties faced by filmmakers dealing in biography—questions of compression and authenticity—Fontaine also had to work with Chanel’s elusive self-mythologizing, and she’s had only inconsistent success in surmounting the problems. Early on, she creates a persuasively and vigorously gritty setting and story arc, whatever the underlying facts. But somewhere around midway through, as Chanel bides her time at Balsan’s estate, becoming his mistress almost by default, Coco seems to lose its focus, or to change it. It becomes a subdued comedy of manners, milieu, and affairs of the heart.

Fontaine has a fine eye for quietly resonant compositions and details and for social custom, but her movie’s tension and pace slacken. And afterward, there’s a lingering suspicion that the real story of the young Chanel’s life had an interesting messiness and propulsion that are missing from this version. It’s inarguable that it departs from history, particularly with regard to Capel’s importance.

And at the center, there’s an odd inconsistency in Tautou’s performance. She quickly gets down her character’s restless, frustrated ambition, but she plays her as so sullenly and disgruntedly distant that it’s difficult to understand how she became the romantic focus of two very desirable men’s lives. Somewhere in transit, Coco and Fontaine lost their way.

Watch the trailer for Coco Before Chanel

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