COCO BEFORE CHANEL **
GABRIELLE (COCO) CHANEL was an extraordinary woman.
The restless ambition and meticulous genius she possessed resulted in the glittering unforgettable House of Chanel. The gorgeous objects of desire she created nearly one hundred years ago are as fresh and relevant today as they were back then: simple black dresses, decorative but functional suits, quilted handbags, multiple strands of pearls, tasteful slingbacks and iconic fragrances.
She was also responsible for the casual glamour that females currently enjoy in their every day lives. She got women out of corsets and into pants – an idea that was revolutionary at that point.
Coco was a rule breaker and a trailblazer. She was a fascinating and complex personality. Her influence is strongly felt to this day.
So one would hope that COCO BEFORE CHANEL, a motion picture about her early years, would do the grande dame justice.
Not this time…
As a small child in the 1890s, GABRIELLE CHANEL’S father took her to a Catholic orphanage. She was there for seven years.
He promised that he would come back for her. He never returned.
Several years after her departure at 18, GABRIELLE (AUDREY TAUTOU) is making costumes and singing at a local bar. She longs to be a performer. The patrons nickname her COCO after one of the songs in her repertoire.
Coco is a cynic. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Her sense of humour is sharp and sardonic. She brushes off flirtations airily with a wave of her hand.
Men don’t impress her. She’s going to be somebody.
Into her life walks millionaire ETIENNE BALSAN (BENOIT POELVOORDE). He’s pleasant enough. But she can not take him seriously.
Etienne is a member of the upper classes. The French aristocracy recognized no moral code except their own. It was the dawn of the twentieth century. They were very rich and didn’t see the need for virtues such as fidelity or loyalty.
Women and men married, cohabitated with people and had as many lovers as they wanted to. They lived for the moment and never considered the consequences.
Coco thinks the matter over carefully. Being with a man like Etienne could create more problems than she needs. But she finally decides to become his mistress.
She moves into his lavish home. Etienne introduces her to the right people. They are unimpressed by Coco’s voice and her dancing skills. It’s clear that she is never going to be a star of the stage.
But there must be something that she can do successfully. She does know how to sew…
Coco decides that she will design hats. Etienne has a reputation to consider. He has always been popular with the ladies. But he seems strangely possessive of Coco.
He tries to control her. She will have none of it. Etienne asks her to marry him. She turns him down.
In spite of his frivolous exterior, Etienne is more sensitive than he seems to be. (It is a characteristic that he has in common with Coco.) He is also far more insightful than he initially appears.
Coco is fond of Etienne. But she knows that he is not the man for her.
And then came Boy…
ARTHUR “BOY” CAPEL (ALESSANDRO NIVOLA) is an acquaintance of Etienne’s that runs in the same circles. He’s a self made Englishman of considerable wealth and charm.
They first meet at Etienne’s mansion. Coco is dressed in men’s pajamas, her long dark hair flowing down her back.
As she passes by, he softly says two words to her: “You’re elegant.”
Coco is immediately smitten.
Boy is destined to be the love of Coco’s life. He takes her to Deauville for the weekend. Boy lends her the money to open her first store and assists her financially so that she can put together her debut collection of designs.
Coco’s clothes are wildly sought after. She is able to pay him back in no time. She and Boy have a long standing love affair. But they knew there could never be a marriage.
It was not the way it was meant to be.
In one scene, Coco looks him squarely in the eye and says, “I always knew that I would never be any man’s wife.”
You almost believe her.
COCO BEFORE CHANEL should be an interesting interpretation of the legendary designer’s early years. Instead it is utterly lifeless, flat and boring.
It is hard to believe that the talented ANNE FONTAINE directed this anemic biography. She did such a breathtaking job with THE GIRL FROM MONACO.
The cinematography is lacklustre. The art direction is pedestrian. Most of the acting is average at best. You would expect that the costumes would be sumptuous and beyond compare. But they’re nothing special.
The exquisite score by ALEXANDRE DESPLAT (THE UPSIDE OF ANGER, THE GOLDEN COMPASS, CHERI) is one of the few memorable attributes.
Of all the name actors that could have played Coco, AUDREY TAUTOU has the strongest resemblance to Ms. Chanel. Physically, she is perfect casting.
Her performance is fine. But it’s nothing spectacular. She lacks Gabrielle’s blazing fire and stately precision. Her acting is all surface. She’s just not compelling.
The real Coco was.
ALESSANDRO NIVOLA is fabulous. He has little chemistry with Ms. Tautou (they don’t make an entirely convincing fit) but he is marvelously sexy and charismatic.
He’s a native Bostonian who speaks fluent Italian. Alessandro’s French (along with a sensational British accent when he speaks the King’s English) is just as convincing. He’s easily the best thing in the movie.
The other thing is: even if you know nothing whatsoever about Ms. Chanel, if you’ve seen half a dozen motion pictures that represent this particular genre, you will have no problem understanding – right from the beginning – exactly what will happen with this relationship.
The foreshadowing is that clumsy.
It’s heartbreaking. But after all of that rapturous anticipation, COCO BEFORE CHANEL turned out to be a dreadful disappointment.
Oh, well. The horses were nice.