Movie Review: Ann Hornaday on 'Coco Before Chanel'

Audrey Tautou stars as fashion icon Coco Chanel in this look at the early years of her life and career.
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009

A truism about acting insists that it's all in the eyes; when it comes to the French actress Audrey Tautou, that means performances of alert sensuality and limpid, smoldering depth. She brings all her eyes have to bear on her role as the title character in "Coco Before Chanel," portraying the legendary fashion icon while still a young woman, not yet a designer and far from the extraordinarily successful businesswoman she would become.

This refreshing alternative to the usual potted biopic provides an absorbing look at a singular, steely determination as it was forged and annealed, long before it made itself known to the world.

As "Coco Before Chanel" opens, two young girls are being deposited by their father at an orphanage in France in the late 19th century. They are Gabrielle and Adrienne Chanel, who as grown women take up singing in cafes and pursuing wealthy men as a means of getting on in the world. During these sequences, "Coco Before Chanel" resembles the 2007 biopic "La Vie en Rose," and viewers may be forgiven for girding themselves for the tale of struggle and tragedy to come.

Thankfully, Chanel's story takes an entirely different turn, albeit one that doesn't entertain conventional notions of female empowerment. Her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain), pairs off with a wealthy boyfriend, while the prospect-free Gabrielle presents herself at the door of Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), a wealthy racehorse owner she befriended as a chanteuse. Living as a kept woman, Gabrielle -- nicknamed Coco for her trademark song -- alternately indulges and chafes at a lifestyle that entails being constantly available sexually yet kept out of sight when society comes calling.

Written and directed with sensitivity by Anne Fontaine, "Coco Before Chanel" presents its young protagonist not as the usual artist bursting to break free or thwarted genius. Instead, Chanel is portrayed as a canny observer whose eye for self-preservation is every bit as canny as her eye for sartorial detail. She's a fascinating contradiction: courtesan and androgyne; little girl lost and ambitious competitor; lover of luxury and austere, earthy rebel.

Viewers expecting a buffet of beautiful clothes in "Coco Before Chanel" may be disappointed. In these early days on Balsan's estate, Coco simultaneously exploits her sexuality and subverts it, dressing in simple, shapeless dresses and men's jodhpurs. When Balsan's female friends (and occasional lovers) visit, Coco loosens their stays, replacing their oversize, plumed hats ("suitable for a carnival") with simple straw toppers. It's a question of taste, of course, but as reflected in Coco's deep, serious eyes, it's also unmistakably a question of women's physical freedom and larger possibilities.

Tautou's performance is somber and un-showy; indeed she rarely smiles in "Coco Before Chanel," at least before Balsan's friend Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola) shows up and Coco embarks on the relationship that would launch her into brand-new territory, personally and professionally. "Coco Before Chanel" has it all -- striving, sensuality, romance and a bittersweet ending that turns out to be just the beginning.

Coco Before Chanel (110 minutes, in French with subtitles, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking.

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