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The story of Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel has been told many times on film, stage and in books. The woman who became the world’s best-known schmatte-designer lived a life as unique as the fashions she created.  Coco Before Chanel takes a look back at the foundations of the real House of Chanel.

Opening with young Gabrielle being dumped at an orphanage by her uncaring father, we see through the young girl’s eyes her attention to the stark monochromes of the nun’s habits that would influence her own sense of colour and style. We catch up with Gabrielle and her sister as teens in a local café singing peppy songs about their lost dog, Coco, for tips. The only real tip she earned was having the appellation adhere and become her famous nickname. While splitting time between working in a tailor shop and singing in bars, Coco manages to hook herself a rich playboy by pretty much turning up at his mansion and refusing to leave. Sweet! After first living with him as his backstreet girl of sorts, Coco asserts herself in little ways; first taking over her lover’s wardrobe and creating fetching mannish outfits for herself that shock and amuse his friends, then by designing stylish chapeaus for his bevy of influential female pals. One visitor to the estate, another wealthy man-about-town, is Arthur “Boy” Capel, the man who provides Coco with the initial financial backing to begin her dream of designing and quickly becomes the love of her life.

Amazing how a life so thoroughly lived as Chanel’s could come off so flat onscreen.  Filled with capable performances by the supporting cast; particularly Benoît Poelvoorde as Balsan,  Chanel’s first brush with wealth and the very embodiment of the Gallic shrug, Poelvoorde plays Balsan as a wastrel too jaded to be bothered over much, including his mistress’ unconcealed love for another man.  Poelvoorde balances the absurdity of his situation with this entirely unsuitable suited woman with off-hand humour, while managing to be quite cruel to the impoverished Gabrielle without ever really meaning to be. 

Alessandro Nivola is dreamy in marcelled hair and beautifully cut tuxedos as “Boy” Capel, the man who sweeps Coco off her feet and proves to the cynical orphan that love exists even for someone as scarred as she.  As Chanel, our star, Audrey Tautou is lovely to look at; her liquid eyes intelligent and searching, but there’s not a whole not more to her performance than looking really great in classic Chanel fashions.  We see her in modified menswear, the first little black dress and the striped shirts and bellbottoms Chanel copied from French fishermen that became France’s unofficial uniform.  Her Chanel is a flatline, displaying none of the designer’s passion and precious little of the flaming temper that history has told us so much about.  If this wasn’t the story of Chanel, no one would really care for this person because she’s not written very interestingly.  I wanted to know more about the ladies of questionable repute she designed for early on, than Chanel herself.  The revelations that led up to the Chanel signatures like the aforementioned striped shirts, little black dress and masculine suits and trousers are amusing, but certainly not enough to hold the interest of anyone who doesn’t care about those things beforehand. 

This Coco Chanel is so hollow we get no insight as to how she felt living as what would have been termed then, a fallen woman; an unusual courtesan with no artifice, carrying on as the kept woman of one rich man while beginning an affair with another that will carry on past his marriage.  Outside of Tautou looking fabulous (- Though not filmed particularly kindly) in a host of Chanel designs; it’s not even that great looking a production.  Stephen Frears’ Cheri from earlier this year does a far better job displaying the beauty and overripe lushness of the fading Belle Époque and its demimonde than does director Anne Fontaine with Coco Before Chanel. 

The film is the only biopic approved by the House of Chanel, clearly for its utter topicality and lack of challenge to Chanel’s mythos.  How sad that the film that should have been the last cinematic word on the early life of the iconic Coco Chanel ends up being little more than a shallow, listless Gallic version of a Lifetime for Women TV-movie with only half the resonance.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

Sept. 23rd, 2009






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(Courtesy of  Sony Pictures Classics)


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