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Coco Before Chanel (2009) October 26, 2009

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2009

The author of this review was never a particularly big fan of fashion. Main purpose of clothing is protection from the elements; there are rather few occasions or examples when someone can appreciate its aesthetic qualities. Despite being overrated element of modern culture, fashion nevertheless can be good source of fascinating stories for a feature film. At least, that was the idea behind COCO BEFORE CHANEL, 2009 French biopic directed by Anne Fontaine.

In it Audrey Tatou plays titular character – Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883 – 1971), famous French fashion designer, founder of a business empire and one of the most influential persons of 20th Century. The film deal with her humble roots and depicts rags-to-riches story. After a prologue set in 1890s orphanage that depicts little Gabrielle desperately waiting for a father that would never come, plot advances few decades to Belle Epoque France. Gabrielle and her sister Emilienne (played by Marie Gillan) are poor seamstresses that try to make ends meet by performing in music halls frequented by wealthy men. One of those men is Etienne Balsan (played by Benoit Poelvoorde), heir to the business empire, who would try to sponsor Gabrielle’s show business career. Those attempts end in fiasco, and desperate Gabrielle takes residence at Etienne’s chateau. There she is revolted by Etienne’s paternalistic attitude towards her and her rebellion manifests in designing and wearing “unwomanly” clothes. This attitude, however, intrigues Etienne’s English friend Arthur “Boy” Capel (played by Alessandro Nivola) who falls in love in Gabrielle and helps her set up hat shop in Paris.

At first glance, there are plenty things to like about COCO BEFORE CHANEL. The most noticeable is cast. Belgian actor Benoit Poelvoorde (best known for his role in cult film MAN BITES DOG) brings a lot of roguish charm to the otherwise thankless role of heroine’s sugar daddy. Emanuelle Davos is also very effective in the role of Coco’s courtesan mentor. On the other hand, Audrey Tatou – who tries very hard to make her portrayal of Coco as faithful as possible – lacks certain chemistry with Alessandro Nivola. However, the other elements of film, notably the period detail and wonderful score by Alexandre Desplat, make this flaw less visible.

The other flaw of COCO BEFORE CHANEL – bad script – is somewhat harder to hide. Feature film is not always the best medium to present someone’s biographies, especially in case of long and eventful lives like Coco’s. Her early life was supposed to provide more drama. However, script by Anne and Camille Fontaine concentrated solely on her love life, while ignoring certain important historical events that shaped her life, most importantly First World War. It was the absence of men, drafted into cannon fodder, that forced industries to take women to men’s job and forced women to wear practical yet “unwomanly” clothes that would make Coco empress of world’s fashion. The film mostly ignores this important aspect of Coco’s life. The last “fantasy” TITANIC-like scene, in which Chanel supervises modern-day fashion show, comes less like proper way to finish film and more like a desperate attempt to tell audience why they had to watch it in the first place. That scene only reinforces impression that there were better ways to portray fascinating life of Coco Chanel.

RATING: 4/10



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