You don’t have to be a fashionista to enjoy Coco Before Chanel, director Anne Fontaine’s engrossing look at the life of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel before she became a brand name. The movie is the latest entry in a growing wave of films revolving around the fashion industry (Ridley Scott is currently talking to Angelina Jolie for a movie about the Gucci empire). But Fontaine’s primary focus is not clothing but people — specifically the role of women in a strict, buttoned-down society that had clear delineations toward how they should look and behave.
Although technically a biopic based on a nonfiction book by Edmonde Charles-Roux, Coco Before Chanel plays more like an engrossing, classy period piece. The story centers on sisters Gabrielle and Adrienne Chanel, abandoned at an orphanage by their father, who grow up to be seamstresses by day and entertainers at a raucous music hall.
Onstage, the sisters (played by Audrey Tautou and Marie Gillain) perform a song that will give Gabrielle her nickname. Onstage, too, Gabrielle meets the wealthy playboy Etienne (Benoit Poelvoorde), who will take her into his house as his mistress and reluctantly introduce her to French high society.
Tautou, finally putting the lingering persona of Amelie to rest, plays Chanel as a driven, fiercely resourceful woman whose restless eyes constantly study the world around her, searching for a foothold. Friendship with a boisterous actress (Emmanuelle Devos) leads Chanel to design straw hats and, eventually, clothing, while her acquaintance with a British businessman (Alessandro Nivola) brings her first — and, the movie claims, last — brush with love.
All these plot strands play out in a familiar but compelling manner. The complex relationship between Chanel and Etienne, who is initially embarrassed by her, then later seems to get off on embarrassing her, is intriguing: You can’t always tell who is taking advantage of whom.
Fontaine subtly illustrates Chanel’s gradual gravitation toward designing dresses, mostly as a response to the over-corseted, over-accessorized fashion of the era. While she searches for her sister at the race track, the camera floats through the well-appointed crowd, taking subtle note of the intricate lace of a dress or an impeccably knotted tie, showing us what Chanel sees. Through Tautou’s performance, Coco Before Chanel reveals the formation of an artist.
Cast: Audrey Tautou, Benoit Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola, Marie Gillain, Emmanuelle Devos.
Director: Anne Fontaine.
Screenwriters: Anne Fontaine, Camille Fontaine, Christopher Hampton, Jacques Fieschi.
Producers: Carole Scotta, Caroline Benjo, Philippe Carcassonne.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 110 minutes. Sexual situations. In French with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Palm Beach: Shadowood.