Anne Fontaine’s “Coco Before Chanel” is as cool and elegant as its heroine. Unfortunately it’s also equally impassive, opaque and—at least in this incarnation—dull. Even the presence of the entrancing Audrey Tautou in the title role doesn’t help; in this case she proves statuesque in the most literal, and deadening, sense.
The script by no fewer that four scribes, inspired by a book by Edmonde Charles-Roux, deals primarily with the early years prior to Coco’s emergence as the revolutionary designer who brought simple elegance and comfort to female fashion in early twentieth-century Paris. After a brief prologue in which we see her father depositing her and her sister at a Catholic orphanage, the tale sprints ahead to the girls’ days as a singing duo in bars and their stint as seamstresses. But when her sister goes off to marry a baron—or so she believes—Coco, now alone, decides to try her luck with a gentleman she met during her dancehall days. She goes off to the estate of Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), a rich but dissolute fellow whose main interests seem to be fast horses and riotous parties, with the intention of becoming his permanent houseguest.
She succeeds in this, and much of the rest of the film is devoted to their life together, an arrangement of convenience that’s filled with ups and downs (no pun intended). It’s also endangered by the arrival of an English friend of Balsan’s, Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola), nicknamed Boy, to whom Coco is drawn even after she learns that he’s engaged to a wealthy British heiress.
Meanwhile Coco is developing her peculiar fashion sense. She makes many of her own clothes and hats, preferring simplicity and freedom of movement over the frills, feathers and corsets beloved of society at the time. And when she provides a few chapeaux for an actress (Emmanuelle Devox) who’s a regular at Etienne’s soirees, her fame spreads to Paris. That leads to her opening a shop of her own with financial assistance from Capel—and the rest, as they say, is history.
As befits a film about a designer, “Coco Before Chanel” is lovingly crafted. Olivier Radot’s production design and Catherine Leterrier’s costumes are gorgeous, and they’re photographed in widescreen images of striking richness by Christophe Beaucarne. And they’re well complemented by Alexandre Desplat’s engaging score.
But the glamorous surface doesn’t make up for the emptiness of a tale that really isn’t much more than the story of a very successful social climber. Even Coco’s talent is reduced to a couple of simple-minded influences: as a girl she’s taken with the black-and-white garb of the nuns at the orphanage, and then later she’s so impressed by the clothes she sees fishermen wearing on her first trip to the coast that she copies them immediately in her designs. As shorthand for inspiration, that’s too easy by half.
No wonder that Tautou loses much of her magnetism in such a setting. Of course she looks ravishing in whatever she wears. But a hard, determined look goes only so far, and by the time she’s playing the part of fashion’s high priestess in the final montage she’s become a marble figure—impressive but rather boring. Poelvoorde somehow manages to make Balsan, for all his flaws, rather attractive, while Nivola looks great, though as an actor he’s stiff and his English-accented dialogue sounds dubbed.
Katherine Hepburn once played a much older Coco Chanel in a Broadway musical, of all things, written by Andre Previn and Alan Jay Lerner. The show wasn’t much better than “Coco Before Chanel” (in fact, given Hepburn’s lack of concern for a French accent or anything resembling a real characterization, it might have been titled “Coco Without Chanel”). But it was a lot more fun that Fontaine’s film, which is less close in quality to her fine “How I Killed My Father” that to its disappointing follow-up, “The Girl from Monaco.”