Tuesday night, the 3rd, we went to the Downer Theatre to see “Coco Before Chanel,” (“Coco Avant Chanel”) to see the new biopic starring Audrey Tautou as the iconic modiste in her early years.
As the film opens, we see two sisters, Gabrielle (“Coco”) and Adrienne being left off at a convent run orphanage from a farm wagon, as casually as dropping off two bags of groceries. Only later do we figure out that the driver, who never looked back, was the girls’ father, never to be heard from again. It is implied, though never stated, that this callous abandonment shaped Coco’s sometimes harsh, but always fiercely independent, character.
Next we see the grown Gabrielle (Tautou) and Adrienne (Marie Gillain) on their own, augmenting their seamstress’ salaries by singing in a café and passing the hat. They have hopes of getting a “gig” as we would call it, in Paris, but the plan falls through when Adrienne goes to live with an admirer, “her Baron”, in hopes they will marry.
(Rather spoileriffic discussion follows--)
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Coco tries auditioning on her own with no success. Instead of returning to the provinces I defeat, she shows up on the doorstep of her own follower, Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), and essentially invites herself to stay. Shortly, she becomes the mistress of Balsan, a wealthy man of leisure, and the stay becomes long-term. It is from this section of the film that I think criticism of the film that it is “slow” arises. I think the average viewer might be impatient to see how Chanel actually gets into the business of fashion and builds her empire—but that is not what the film is about. Instead, during her up and down relationship with Balzan, who is alternately charming and crass, we see the subtle development of tastes and influences that would shape her later style: borrowing men’s tailored clothes and pajamas, the boat-neck jersey, the “boyfriend” sweater; eschewing corsets; inventing the “little black dress.” Her dislike of belle époque fru-fru gets her a foothold in the fashion world, designing more streamlined and elegant hats for Balzan’s friends such as actress Emilienne d'Alençon (Emmanuelle Devos), and her second lover, Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola), sets her up as a milliner when Coco declines to follow him to England and life as a mistress following his marriage to an English noblewoman.
This is a remarkable, if low-keyed, acting job by Tautou, who currently owns the “gamine” franchise. She can look pinched or pretty (depending on how hollow her cheeks look--) and her eyes sulky or sultry with equal ease. She is well supported by Poelvoorde, who portrays a frivolous and shallow man who nevertheless has real sentiment, cares deeply for Coco, and suffers her loss to Capel with a philosophic sportsmanship that is uniquely French. Costuming and sets are of course very carefully done, and the movie is peopled with a characterful supporting cast. As with most biopics, facts have been changed for dramatic purposes, but, from what I can tell by comparing with easily available biographical material, not overly much.
(Note: Probably not coincidentally, Audrey Tautou is the current “spokesmodel” for perfume Chanel No. 5, following such stars as Marilyn Monroe, Catherine Deneuve, and Nicole Kidman.)