Coco Before Chanel

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 June, 2009, 12:00am

Starring: Audrey Tautou, Benoit Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola, Emmanuelle Devos

Director: Anne Fontaine

Category: IIA (French)

Central to Coco Before Chanel is a young woman struggling to break through the confines of her earlier self, and eventually succeeding in establishing herself as one of the most accomplished practitioners of her art - and, oh, there's also the story of the rise of the French fashion icon. Audrey Tautou is undoubtedly the star here, with her nuanced and, perhaps, career-best performance as the prim, pragmatic and proud Chanel, proving she can handle gritty adult characters as effortlessly as the comparatively meeker, but notable, roles she played in films such as Amelie or Ensemble, c'est tout.

Tautou's (far right with Emmanuelle Devos) winning performance is crucial to Anne Fontaine's film, as Coco Before Chanel is very much a character study of Chanel in her formative years, when the young woman - who still prefers to be called by her real name, Gabrielle - is grappling with the tribulations of her impoverished upbringing. She is slowly navigating her way up the social ladder, shaping and reshaping herself to fulfil her aspirations as an independent individual thriving on her own work ethic and artistic merits.

She's headstrong in her self-belief, even though her first lover - the womanising aristocrat Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde) - prefers to keep Chanel as 'an angel of absence'. And she's explosively passionate when embracing Arthur 'Boy' Capel (Alessandro Nivola), the British entrepreneur who's probably Chanel's one true love.

Fontaine's screenplay - which she co-adapted with her sister Camille from Edmonde Charles-Roux's novel L'Irreguliere - offers a variety of scenes that establish Chanel's divergent personal traits, material which Tautou put to good use with a slow-burning and highly substantial turn.

Perhaps to satisfy the fashionistas' desire to learn about Chanel's achievements in haute couture, the film carries a final short sequence in which the now-aged designer is seen presiding over a showcase of her work, and receiving a rapturous ovation. It's an abrupt addition to the film, during which Fontaine cannily weaves in small instances that would later become inspiration to the designer's trademark aesthetics - her determination to dress in androgynous clothing, for example, or the way she happened on jersey, a cheap material that she would reinvent in her oeuvre. Such subtle ways of establishing small signposts of Chanel's early years make Coco Before Chanel a highly watchable film devoid of the product-placement statements fashion-driven films have been making in recent years.

Coco Before Chanel opens today