Once upon a time (the turn of the 19th century), in a far away land (France), a young girl and her sister were left at an orphanage, where the young girl learned to sew, an ability that would inform her destiny.
When they grew up, the pretty sisters became dancers, and were noticed by barons, who introduced the sisters to high society.
The second sister married her baron; the first found herself caught between two noblemen, but ended up with neither. Instead, she became a highly sought-after fashion designer, sprinkling her stylish magic upon fashion-conscious women everywhere.
So goes Coco Before Chanel, an impressionistic, lightly fictionalized and seductively languorous account of the young Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, and her steps toward becoming the only fashion designer to be named in TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
Audrey Tautou excels in the title role, fully immersing herself in the enigma of the fashion icon, discarding any trace of Amelie (and The Da Vinci Code, thankfully). She does not completely unfurl Chanel’s mystery, tantalizing and leaving the viewer wanting more.
As Chanel, she is solemn yet spontaneous, her dark brown eyes opaque and infinite, her still porcelain face breaking out into a rare, wide smile when you least expect it.
She is an outsider, set apart from the rest, ahead of her time, and visibly uncomfortable in crowds. Tautou conveys Chanel’s constant awareness of her surrounding aesthetics, agitated when she sees an over-accessorized woman and captivated by stripy-shirted men on the beach.
The romance between Chanel and English businessman Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola) – allegedly the love of the real Chanel’s life – infuses the otherwise serene film with smoldering passion and enlivening the mostly somber leading lady.
Nivola is dashing and magnetic – a flawed Prince Charming who sweeps the princess off her feet, but cannot give her the castle, which she doesn’t even want, desiring to build her own.
Chanel’s other “prince” and her true ticket to Parisian society, the aristocratic Etienne Balsan (Beno*t Poelvoorde), is deliciously hedonistic, conjuring a bohemian environment, allowing Chanel to live in his castle, giving her the space to develop her signature style.
Another of his mistresses, *milienne d’Alen*on (Emmanuelle Devos) acts as Chanel’s muse, and forming the fourth side of the love quadrangle – although it is a passionate shape with infinite sides.
The exquisite parade of clothes is complemented by the mostly monochromatic cinematography, with splashes of red suggesting Chanel’s hidden turmoil or passion, such as when as an orphan she watches little girls in red chosen by new parents or dancing wearing a red corset, enchanting Balsan.
Mixing fiction and fact, Coco Before Chanel is a fashionable fairy tale, nostalgic and timeless, and sublimely devastating. Like the expensive simplicity of Chanel’s designs – there’s much more than initially meets the eye.
Coco Before Chanel (Warner Bros, 110 min)
Directed by Anne Fontaine
Written by Edmonde Charles-Roux, Anne Fontaine, Camille Fontaine
Starring Audrey Tautou, Beno*t Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola