Several years after leaving the orphanage to which her father never returned for her, Gabrielle Chanel finds herself working in a provincial bar. She's both a seamstress for the performers and a singer, adopting the nickname Coco from her father in early childhood. A liaison with Baron Balsan gives her an entrée into French society and a chance to develop her gift for designing increasingly popular hats. When she falls in love with English businessman Arthur Capel further opportunities open up, though life becomes ever more complicated.Written by
What do you want in a foreign period film? Beautiful locations? Check. Class struggle? Check. Subtitles? Check. All that's missing is urgency.
Coco Chanel is a French legend. The designer of the ground-breaking haute couture style, creator of the huge fashion brand Chanel, and a forward-thinker in terms of women's independence. Chanel is a complex and dynamic personality. Makes me want to see a movie called "Coco During Chanel". But "Coco Before Chanel"? Not so much.
Audrey Tautou does a commendable job of playing Chanel in her early years (and looks a lot like Chanel in the movie's later scenes). Adding complications to the idea is the fact that there is little known about Chanel's youth, and what is known often has conflicting stories. But be prepared, what does happen in "Coco Before Chanel", happens slowly. This, in a movie that portrays the French elite as people with crazy money, outlandish parties and a constant desire to quench their boredom. I desired the same.
Although she often denied it, Chanel was brought to an orphanage early in life (this was denied mainly to prevent preconceptions of her as an undesirable). The film sharply cuts to late teens/early twenties Coco (real name, Gabrielle), singing with her sister in clubs to make a buck. It was the plight of women in the 1890s to find a man or fear being lost in society. Coco's sister was beholden to a man for thirty years, and he FINALLY married her after his parents died so he wouldn't have to explain to them that he married an orphan (for shame!). This assnine mentality is certainly worth rebelling against, but Coco remains passive for too much of the movie. She is taken in by a wild playboy named Balsan (expertly played by Benoit Poelvoorde) and is mistreated by him for years. Chanel wants to answer to no man and wants to design clothes that avoid the feathers and corset that alter a woman's natural body. But again, this is done with little dramatic flair and many, many pages of slow-moving script. Coco came off as a little too inert for a little too long.
This movie is the first of the late-year potential Oscar nominees. Tautou's performance is a maybe, but the costume design is a sure thing, and rightfully so. The Chanel style is famous, they have to nail it, and they did, while also building gorgeous period outfits for the rich, end-of-century French culture and a few military outfits as well.
The score by Alexandre Desplat does a lot to enhance a few of the scenes, and the cinematography is lush. I want to give a special nod to Alessandro Nivola, who's very good here and very good in everything, but the guy doesn't appear in enough high-profile stuff. He sits very comfortably in the French language here and smolders in some of his more romantic moments like a poor man's Ralph Fiennes.
A traumatic event late in the film propels Coco to launch into her designing full speed. That moment felt a little rushed and the whole ending follows suit. What I wanted at the end was the "Coco During Chanel" movie to start, so, then, that could be kind of a success for the film? But remember, I wanted "Coco During Chanel" going in, so really, the whole 'before' story just felt like slow filler. Frills, perhaps? Padding?
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