Coco Avant Chanel has all of the elements to be a potentially brilliant film. French? Check. Period drama? Check. Fabulous frocks and Audrey Tautou in the lead role? Check and check. But at first glance something seems to be lacking in this biopic about the revered French fashion designer Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel.
The film begins in the late eighteen-hundreds with the young Chanel being literally carted off to an orphanage with her sister, and moves on to her life as a gaudy saloon performer whose real talents lie in dressmaking. From the outset it is clear that although poor, Coco is defiant, headstrong and really ‘something else’. She also displays a kind of elegance like no other, even the aristocratic women in their feathers and frills. The film slowly moves through her rise to high-end designer of simplistic, elegant clothing in a time where a) women didn’t work, and b) the phrase ‘less is more’ was not yet coined.
What really lifts the film, however, is Tautou. I’m happy to state my bias – I love her – but I seriously doubt if the film would work with any other actress. It’s a drama, it’s a love story, and there are poignant moments that rely so much on her facial expressions. It’s that quiet, press-lipped smile that she gives, her long hair pinned up around her face, her petite frame and delicate facial features. And most of all it’s that enchantingly perfected blank stare that she so often gives, which says nothing and everything all at the same time.
Director Anne Fontaine tries to draw on the whimsy and magic of Tautou and her previous films (most notably Jean Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie and A Very Long Engagement), but the film often lacks the same kind of sparkle. Of course there are a few goose bump moments – Coco seeing the seaside for the first time, her dancing debut in a gorgeous self-designed black dress, and a ponderous moment amongst fallen autumn leaves, dressed in a masculine blazer and blue and white striped shirt.
Benoit Poelvoorde and Emmanuelle Devos are admirable in support roles as lover and friend respectively, along with Allessandro Nivola whose performance, like his relationship with Coco and indeed the film itself, builds as the tale goes on. It is the development of this relationship that finally begins to shape the story as one would expect, as the encouragement the Englishman offers Coco leads to her becoming a fashion designer.
Her subsequent rise from Parisian hat maker to internationally-renowned designer is relatively glossed over, but is admittedly not the point of Coco Avant (before) Chanel. Yet the fact that we already know the ‘ending’ to the story means that the preamble which forms the basis of the film can at times feel drawn out and unnecessary. More dresses! More glamour! Less horse-riding, book reading and idle chit-chat! But of course, Coco was not born into her career as we know it, and it is this tale of her slow success, sacrifices, struggles and lovers that is presented in the film.
So instead of looking at the film as a story of the life and times of Coco Chanel, perhaps it is better to view it as a portrayal of character. And in this way, it is brilliant. Coco was a pioneer not just in the fashion arena, but for women and feminism in general. There is a sense of continual discontent and restlessness throughout her life, but in the finale a fulfilled feeling of proud achievement – albeit through heartbreak and sacrifice- is found, similarly rounding out satisfying viewing experience.
If you’re expecting a film filled with black and white tweed suits, layered pearls and quilted bags with chain-link straps, then buy your ticket and only drop in for the last ten minutes. This is all about Coco the woman, the lover and the fighter, and as always, Tautou is enchanting.
Coco Avant Chanel opens across Australia on June 25, 2009.