French actress Audrey Tautou is best known for her dewy-eyed, naive ingénue performances in movies like “Amelie” and “The Da Vinci Code.”
It’s interesting to see her in the role of a woman with a strong will. While those dark doe eyes still reflect pain and sensitivity, there is also a fierce intelligence and iron determination behind them in “Coco Before Chanel.”
Based on a book by Edmonde Charles-Roux, “Coco Before Chanel” concentrates on the early life of the famed designer, long before she became one of the world’s most successful businesswomen.
The handsomely mounted production begins in the late 1800s. The father of young Gabrille Chanel and her sister Adrienne has abandoned them at a Catholic orphanage.
Gabrielle is obviously influenced by the stark and simple black and white garments the nuns wear, making an influence on her that will be echoed in her designs in years to come.
As young women, the sisters begin singing at cabarets populated by prostitutes and their wealthy clients. One of their signature songs, “Coco” was a popular little ditty about a lost dog. Soon, the clients dub young Gabrielle with the nickname, Coco.
Adrienne (Marie Gallain) soon takes up with a baron who promises to marry her. Abandoned again, Coco searches for financial stability in the arms of a wealthy horse breeder and inveterate playboy named Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde).
But Coco goes into this relationship with her eyes wide open. While Balsan is very fond of her, she realizes that she’s little more than a courtesan. Indeed, when his upper class friends come to call, Coco must go into hiding.
Although she’s annoyed with this arrangement, she reluctantly accepts it. Slowly worming her way into Balsan’s social circle, she befriends a popular actress who allows her to tinker with her wardrobe. Coco sees the frilly adornments, huge feathered hats and corset-crunched waistlines as ridiculous overkill, and she opts for simplicity.
Soon, she’s designing modest straw hats for her wealthy friends.
But Coco doesn’t initially think of this as a career, largely because she’s become enamored with a friend of Balsan named Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola). With Balsan’s permission, they engage in a hot and heavy affair.
This freethinking, casual love triangle lasts until ended by a tragedy. It’s only then that Coco reassesses her life.
Director Anne Fontaine (“The Girl from Monaco”) focuses her camera on Tautou’s expressive eyes, allowing the actress to make her mark with subtlety.
This slow moving biopic seems to peter out just as it’s getting interesting. Perhaps it would be more satisfying if we could see the rest of the story. Sequel anyone? (PG-13) Rating: ***
* Avoid at all costs
** Only if you're bored
*** Good movie
**** Well worth your time
***** Be sure to see it