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Coco before Chanel (9/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime: 110 minutes

OK for children

This film by director Anne Fontaine (who co-wrote the script with Camille Fontaine) is a fascinating portrait of the designer as a young woman. With Coco played unerringly by Audrey Tautou, this is a big departure from Fontaine’s last film, “The Girl From Monaco,” which was a terrific story done in by poor casting of the title role, which ruined it for me. Here, however, Tautou is brilliant as the young Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. I can’t imagine anyone else in the role, unless it would be Audrey Hepburn with whom Tautou is often compared.

This tells the story of her life up to her emergence on the national stage. The facts of her life are that she was born in 1883 into a modest and provincial home. She was orphaned young, apparently nobody knows her exact age at the time, and grew up in a convent school, where she learned how to sew. The film picks it up from there and we first meet her as an entertainer at the local cafés-concerts. When she would sing on stage, the audience applauded and called her “Coco,” a name that stayed with her for the rest of her life.

She met Étienne Baison (Benoît Powlvoorde, in a bravura performance), a rich racehorse owner with whom she insinuated a liaison. He introduced her to the equestrian world, which maintained an influence throughout her career.

This film captures the feistiness that allowed her to become much more than the creator of the “little black dress” and Chanel No. 5. Truth was one thing that apparently meant little to Coco. Tautou captures her charm in creating whatever background she wanted for herself. What’s fun about this movie is watching Coco as a nobody, knowing that she would eventually eclipse everyone else.

What it does not do is deal with her multitude of lovers that came later (like the much younger Nazi with whom she lived during WWII, after shutting down her business; she was, after all, a survivor), other than Baison and Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola), with whom the film intimates she was deeply in love. No, this film shows how she developed into becoming the legend. As such, it does concentrate on the myriad of lies and deceptions upon which she built her image and, indeed, her career. As well as being a genius at what she did, this film presents her as a consummate liar.

Still, one can’t watch this and fail to root for her.