Coco Before Chanel
Films about great writers rarely work because it’s hard to express their literary output cinematically; a film about a fashion designer offers a much more visual proposition. Anne Fontaine’s sumptuously dressed biopic of the early years of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel may be no great shakes as a drama, sticking close to the La Vie En Rose model of rags to riches, but at least the featured rags have rarely been so freshly pressed and laundered.
From his introduction to our heroine, having her dreams shattered in an orphanage, it’s clear that Fontaine’s take on Chanel is firmly nailed to the idea of fashion as an expression of romantic longing. Gabrielle (Audrey Tautou) soon sees her initial hopes as a song and dance girl flounder, leading her into the company of sugar-daddy Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde).
As our heroine is slighted by Balsan’s attraction to glamorous actress Adrienne (Emmanuelle Devos), a quick snip of her scissors on his tie demonstrates how heartbreak can be expressed through clothing. But as Chanel transfers her attentions to boy-racer Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola), another potential heartbreak looms on the horizon.
While lacking the aesthetic rigour of Edmonde Charles-Roux’s book, Coco Before Chanel faithfully charts the rising hemlines and torn bustiers of a passionate woman repressed by society, with emotion-driven montages of dressmaking, as Coco uses sewing machine and scissors to direct her restless energies into clothing.
Costing a reputed £26 million, Fontaine’s film may be dramatically clichéd, but it’s also gorgeous to look at, with beautiful recreations of Chanel’s early designs. And Tautou, whose performance in The Da Vinci Code was more Coco the Clown than Chanel, proves herself a illuminating ingénue, steeling herself through life’s misfortunes to become the toast of Paris with a permanently lit cigarette and inch-tape always at the ready.
There’s nothing experimental or innovative about Fontaine’s approach, which is as conventional as any TV mini-series, but Coco Before Chanel provides undeniably classy entertainment as the story of a girl who truly wore her heart on her sleeve.
(12A) 105min On general release from Fri 31 Jul.