Film: Coco Before Chanel

Here’s a movie I had absolutely no interest in watching, but I do like to roam from my usual stomping grounds occasionally, and ever since Amelie, I can pretty much watch Audrey Tautou in anything. So why not add Coco Before Chanel (2009) to my queue?

As the film begins, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (Tautou) — along with her sister Adrienne (Marie Gillain) — spends her days as a working class seamstress and her nights entertaining in a saloon. Orphaned as a child, she is decidedly low class in a world where status is everything. But Coco is ambitious, and allows herself to fall into the arms of a wealthy, boorish benefactor named Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), in effect wedging her foot stubbornly in the door of the upper class. Here she catches a glimpse of the high-society world she’s attempting to infiltrate, and finds it even more frivolous than she imagined. Despite Balsan’s cavalier disregard for her, Coco gradually begins exerting her influence on his social scene, particularly in terms of fashion. Then she falls for one of Balsan’s friends, an English businessman named Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola), who recognizes her unique sensibility, thus beginning a relationship that may finally liberate her from Balsan’s orbit and start her in a new life on her own terms.

Biopics rarely succeed for me on story alone; the rhythms and events of actual life are rarely that structurally satisfying as  narrative. So I go into them looking for something else to latch onto. The class divide central to Coco Before Chanel is the most interesting angle here, and watching Coco desperately pursue social status, even as she rejects the very attitudes and “rules” that govern it, makes for an interesting historical glimpse of the class and gender issues of its era. Tautou is charming as ever as the nonconformist Coco, ironically sowing the seeds of a trendsetting fashion empire, and the period is recreated effectively.

For all that, I found Coco Before Chanel a perfectly watchable but unexceptional film — the pace a bit too leisurely, the story simply not all that enthralling. People predisposed to this kind of film, and with a stronger interest in the subject matter, will probably find plenty to like, but this one just wasn’t a great fit for me.

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