Director: Anne Fontaine
Cast: Audrey Tautou, Benoît Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola
Fascinating, wild, unpredictable – one out of three ain’t bad. Anne Fontaine’s biopic of the French fashion icon is captivating, but isn’t quite a perfect fit. To start with, she chooses to avoid the one part of her heroine’s life that would be most interesting. No mention is made of Nazis, or what she did during World War II. For better or worse, this is Coco before Chanel.
So we start with the young Coco (Tautou) abandoned, shipped to an orphanage after her mother dies. Fast forward to her legal age and she runs away into the real world, taking up work as both a seamstress and cabaret singer. Thankfully, she pursues the former. Making her way in a man’s world, the young Coco (nicknamed after her signature nightclub song) finds herself closed in by society. But without a father figure to steer her through, she is forced to find a fella of finance. Enter Etienne Balstran (Poelvoorde), a man of wealth with a soft spot for our songbird.
Gradually growing from a bumbling sugar daddy into an overbearing bore, Poelvoorde is perfectly as possessive patron; ashamed of her boyish ways, he keeps her in the attic, or inside the stables. Anywhere she can’t be seen. But then along comes the dashing Arthur 'Boy' Capel (Nivola), a self-made Englishman with a fluent French tongue. Switching nationalities with but a shake of his moustache, the brooding Nivola is breathtaking to behold. No wonder Coco is so keen to copulate; he’s a seriously charming lover.
But at the heart of Fontaine’s piece is her star: sweeping aside tradition with a self-assured style, Audrey Tautou is mesmerizing as Chanel. After The Da Vinci Code’s codswallop, here is a role in which she can breathe. Disdainfully deriding the women around her, she criticises their curves, their identity, their lack of ambition. As she puts it, she has a good sense of distaste – witty and feisty, Audrey has never been hotter stuff. Not even Jesus’ granddaughter had such good dress sense.
Creating hats for the caged women around her, Coco slowly crafts a reputation for herself. In a sea of white dresses, her subtle black number stands out in the crowd. Singled out in each scene, Christophe Beaucarne’s cinematography is somewhat restrained. Elegantly edging towards its lead, the frame is centred always on her; this is Audrey’s movie, and the camera knows it. The only downer is that the script is so slow, content to convey 80 minutes of story in just under 2 hours. If it weren’t for Audrey’s enthralling turn, you’d be forgiven for switching off two-thirds in.
When Arthur’s tragic death inevitably arrives, it deals a tough blow to young Coco. Mourning, daydreaming, wallowing in sadness, she sews her way through the sorrow; a predictable montage, perhaps, but reinforcing the film’s rather sombre tone. This is no honey-dripped tale of glamorous designs or global fame – that would be Coco after Chanel. Instead, we get a final close-up, as Coco sits on a stairwell, and models pass her by in a hallway of mirrors. A captivating, subdued image, and one oozing pure class.
Simple yet stunning, Fontaine’s film is as attractive as its diminutive leading lady. It’s just fails to match her in the short stakes.