Coco Before Chanel

Coco Before Chanel

2009, PG-13, 105 min. Directed by Anne Fontaine. Starring Audrey Tautou, Benoît Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola, Marie Gillain, Emmanuelle Devos.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 16, 2009

Before her name became synonymous with French couture, perfumes, and other luxury goods, Gabrielle Chanel was a girl of few prospects. By the age of 12, she was a motherless child who was then raised in an orphanage after her father abandoned his children. There she was trained as a seamstress, which is the trade she took up once she left, while also performing by night with her sister in cabarets. In the clubs she acquired the nickname Coco, a name she disliked but that unfortunately stuck. Coco (Tautou) and her sister, Adrienne (Gillain), seem to have harbored hopes for careers on the stage, although their main objective was the finding of rich suitors because, really, what careers were open in 1893 to women of modest means? Fontaine’s biopic of Chanel’s early years could be the biography of almost any upwardly mobile woman of the time. The film often calls to mind another 2009 film, Cheri, which is based on stories by Chanel’s contemporary Colette and is set among the world of courtesans and kept women. Coco Before Chanel shows us those years in which Coco lived with the aristocratic playboy Étienne Balsan (Poelvoorde) and suffered for her love of Arthur "Boy" Capel (Nivola). Mostly, however, we see Chanel as a dispassionate and aloof playmate who never finds the happiness she desires. Fontaine (The Girl From Monaco) also shows Chanel’s individual sense of style as she strips off the frou-frou from dresses and hats and – voilà – transforms articles of clothing into visions that are uniquely hers. Tautou has long sought a role that might extricate her from permanent typecasting as the elfin charmer Amélie, and she has found such a character in Coco Chanel, whose brass-tacks attitude and strong sense of self separate her from the lovelorn girls. There’s not a whole lot more to Coco Before Chanel than this. It’s a perfectly nice period piece and biographical backgrounder, but the film feels as though it’s a meal of tasty side dishes that lacks a main course.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Anne Fontaine Films
The Innocents
Polish nuns raped by soldiers during WWII trigger wider moral issues

Steve Davis, Aug. 5, 2016

Gemma Bovery
Flaubert's heroine gets a modern spin, courtesy of Posy Simmonds’ comic strip

Kimberley Jones, July 17, 2015

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
The Reason I Jump
Poetic insight into autism, based on Naoki Higashida memoir

Jan. 8, 2021

Marjorie Baumgarten's Top 10 of 2020
Marjorie Baumgarten's Top 10 of 2020
"An eye toward 2020 hindsight"

Dec. 18, 2020

KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Coco Before Chanel, Anne Fontaine, Audrey Tautou, Benoît Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola, Marie Gillain, Emmanuelle Devos

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle