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Coco Before Chanel (2009)

A 2009 movie directed by Anne Fontaine starring Audrey Tatou

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Fashion Voyeur

  • Apr 8, 2010
In a curious mixture of somber reality and breakout sentimentality, Anne Fontaine's biopic "Coco Before Chanel" showcases Audrey Tatou (Amélie) in an anti-gamin role as hardscrabble feminist Gabrielle Chanel, one of the great fashion innovators of the twentieth century. Fontaine's juxtaposing of the realities of an unmarried woman's life at the end of the Belle Epoque and the unemotional resignation and resentment of convention as displayed by Gabrielle (nicknamed Coco as she sings a bawdy ditty of the same name in a dance hall) resonates well within the framework of this attractive film with lush scenes of country life and realistic moments of inspiration as Coco literally reinstates a woman's ability to breathe by removing cumbersome boned corseting.

Tatou, with her dark eyes and pointed elfin face, smolders well as the stubborn Coco. Left as a child with her sister by her father in an orphanage, Chanel realizes quickly that she must fend for herself. Fontaine allows the audience to feel the emotional state of aloneness as they watch scene after scene of Coco's solitary silhouette waiting silently against a backdrop of activity none of which she participates within actively. Fontaine forces us to perceive Coco as an observer--a voyeur watching a scene that she wishes to change. Her attire always stands out--she is either dressed as a boy for comfort or has remade a structured garment to get a sense of less adornment and more functionality. To some degree, she seems the black raven against a covey of overdressed plumed pigeons--she augurs what is to come--more freedom, yes--less pain, no. In "Coco Before Chanel," Tatou desires nothing but to fling off the loveable waif character of Amelie with satisfaction--her dark eyes muddy with intense shrewdness rather than twinkle with a naif's exuberance over the possibilities of life.

Emphasizing that her view of the world is a sensible one is roué Etienne Balsen, a wealthy country squire (played with perfect bored panache by Benoît Poelvoorde) who resignedly allows the street-smart opportunist in Coco to move into his estate as his live-in, but not always seen mistress. His 'je-ne-sais-quoi' expressionless face reflects a toughness that eventually fails when assailed by Coco's relentless insistence. Only when Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola) wins Coco's hard heart, does he falter in his Weltschmerz--the mask slips from his face for seconds and then he is back to planning his next debauched soiree.

The appearance of Boy Capel heralds the only chink in Coco's armor. A bittersweet Amelie-type waltz tinkles as the two smile, laugh, make love and money together, reminding us that there can be some happiness however ephemeral. Again, the savvy Chanel acquiesces to the social rules of the time and yet stands her ground, ever the voyeur as he marries another of his class yet finances her venture.

Fontaine's view of Coco depicts her from the start as destined to be an onlooker. Society sets the stage and she ascertains that the actors and actresses are dressed in more comfortable clothing. She changes a hat, removes a ribbon, creates unstructured garb out of fishermen's gear. Nonetheless she waits, looks on, and never really engages. As a filmmaker, Fontaine succeeds in creating a mood that smolders, briefly flickers into flame and then detaches for fear of further hurt.

Bottom line? Anne Fontaine creates a sad but magnificent portrait of Coco before fashion fame. She showcases the resignation of the film's women to the idea that legitimate social status was improved only through good marriage is illustrated by Coco as mistrustful mistress and opportunist, her sister Adrienne (Marie Gillain) who trades love for respectability and Emilienne (Emmanuelle Devos) whose career as an actress places her in the demimonde between the socially acceptable and the disreputable. Her depiction of Coco smolders with moodiness, resentment and bittersweet inevitability. The audience mesmerized by the soft beauty of the country and costumes looks on as Coco watches those around her--too hardened to really engage--too savvy to let her guard down more than once--and too street smart to all together give up. Perhaps it is she with her thin cigarette toting chic that trademarked for us all the rather cynical sophisticated French woman of the world. Nonetheless, Tatou's performance is a departure from Amelie but every now and then she cannot fail to peak through the world-weary façade. Recommended.
Diana Faillace Von Behren

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More Coco Before Chanel (2009 movie... reviews
review by . October 20, 2009
Watch this movie for the beautiful scenes of French countryside, and for the drama of Coco Chanel's early life, but do not be misled by the preview, which gives you the most romantic scene in the movie and does not show how much misery is involved in the rest of the film.      What bothered me most about Audrey Tatou's performance was how waif-ish she was. Those hollow-eyed expressions. Those wistful glances. Her attitude seemed perfect for a waspish model, but not the leader …
Quick Tip by . March 28, 2010
posted in Reel Overseas
I really enjoyed this film. It was very well-acted and at times quite sexy. As far as biopics go, this was great!
About the reviewer
Diana Faillace Von Behren ()
Ranked #178
I like just about anything. My curiosity tends to be insatiable--I love the "finding out" and the "ah-ha" moments.      Usually I review a book or film with the … more
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Before she became Coco, the world-famous fashion designer, Gabrielle Chanel (Audrey Tautou in a fiercely determined performance) struggled to make ends meet. After her mother's death, her father deposited her and her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain), at an orphanage, where they learned to sew (and where Chanel developed a taste for monochromatic ensembles). They went on to become cabaret singers, but when Adrienne runs off with a wealthy suitor, the newly christened Coco must go it alone until she meets gentleman farmer Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde). She lives comfortably at his chateau, but he refuses to take her out in public, so she puts her skills as a seamstress to good use and designs outfits for his lady friends, like Emilienne (Emmanuelle Devos), an actress. Chanel's situation improves further when British investor Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola with an impeccable French accent) enters the scene. Her working-class origins present less of a problem with Capel, though the couple will have other issues with which to contend. In the meantime, he gives her the money to open her own Parisian studio, and the film ends with the tweed suit-clad Chanel of the popular imagination. Until that time, writer-director Anne Fontaine (The Girl from Monaco) presents a very different character, a woman who wasn't worldly or sophisticated, but who saw no reason why fashion--or "style," as she called it--should be complicated or ...
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DVD Release Date: February 16, 2010
Runtime: 105 minutes
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

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"What a Waif!"
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