Coco before Chanel

French biographical dramas are a mixed bag. “Coco Before Chanel” is a mixed Chanel bag. French films of its ilk usually emphasize character, evocative settings, substantial performances and often a sense of foreboding. These films do not end in bliss.

“Coco Before Chanel” (“Coco Avant Chanel” is subtitled) is the story of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel from her alienated days in an orphanage where she and her sister are placed in 1893, through two complicated affairs, to her eventual success as a designer. In the movie, her success is abrupt.

Coco (Audrey Tautou) is a headstrong, no-nonsense, independent, young woman in a world in which women were tethered by corsets and feathers. In the film there are no villains except codes of behavior. Those codes are restricting and constricting; they are formidable barriers. Coco believes in simplicity — often shapeless, but surprisingly provocative in a world of froufrou.

A movie such as “Coco Before Chanel” depends almost entirely on its leading lady. Marion Cotillard won an Oscar as Best Actress in “La Vie en Rose” (2007) for her dazzling portrayal of Edith Piaf. Coco is not a role that has the dimension and range of Piaf, but Tautou well may get an Oscar nomination. Coco is wounded psychologically in her film, but it is not as much of a defining characeristic as it was with Piaf.

Tautou may remind one of Ingrid Bergman. Bergman also performed roles with limited range, but her rationality and unflappable strength with a hint of fragility shone through. Tautou has those same qualities as Bergman (an actress who I voted No. 1 in the AFI poll of Best Actresses). Some of Tautou’s expressions are reminiscent of the divine Ingrid.

Since conflict is limited — it’s a “civilized” French society — “Coco Before Chanel” may bore some viewers, who might prefer Coco’s being beheaded or burnt at the stake (as Bergman was in “Joan of Arc” 1948). But, for better or worse, the young woman keeps her head and her wits about her. She’s like a little tugboat that leaves the harbor, “vanishes” as one man says, but comes back.

In the film there are two supportive men — one French, one English — who are attracted by Coco’s independent attitude. The Frenchman Baron Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde) becomes interested in her when he sees her performing with her sister Adrienne (Marie Gillian) in a cabaret. Adrienne is a romantic; Coco is a realist. At least most of the time.

The baron is a wealthy racehorse owner who lives in a spacious mansion. He is a playboy, but he knows his constant pursuit of pleasure is shallow. He’s boorish, but also can be sensitive.

The Englishman Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola) is in the coal business. He meets Coco with the baron, and eventually “borrows” her to a fateful denouement.

The director Anne Fontaine (“The Girl from Monaco”) adapted her film from a book by Edmonde Charles-Roux.

Any hint of Coco’s tainted activity during WWII is avoided completely. Remember this is a film without villainy.

Fontaine doesn’t seem to know how to conclude her movie. The end seems from another picture, as models wearing Chanel’s dresses from different years pass her on steps. But in “Coco Before Chanel,” Tautou coolly charms as the designer in her formative years. On a scale of 8, the film is a Chanel No. 5.

Categories: Entertainment