Coco Before Chanel (Coco Avant Chanel) Review
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Soon, the awards shows will begin again—the Golden Globes, the Oscars, you name it. Once again, Ryan Seacrest will take to the red carpet, asking every celebrity in sight the same question: “Who are you wearing?” And while new designers come and go every year, one name has been a red carpet staple for decades: Chanel.

Director Anne Fontaine’s new biopic, Coco Before Chanel (or, in French, Coco Avant Chanel), explores the life of the legendary designer Coco Chanel before she became a fashion icon. She wasn’t a pampered child, brought up in the most stylish of French homes. Instead, young Gabrielle Chanel (Lisa Cohen) was an orphan—left behind, along with her sister, when she was just a girl.

While her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain), grows into a hopeless romantic, dreaming of marrying a handsome aristocrat who will offer her a life of wealth and romance, Gabrielle (played as an adult by Audrey Tautou) knows better. Convinced that a rich and powerful man will never marry a poor orphan girl, she sets out to take care of herself. By day, the sisters work as seamstresses—but, by night, they follow their dreams of becoming actresses, performing musical numbers at a local club.

After Adrienne moves away to follow the man she loves, Gabrielle packs her bags and travels to the home of her wealthy lover, Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde). Though it isn’t the romance that her sister wanted for her, Balsan’s influence helps to introduce her to an unfamiliar—and influential—new world.

Like another recent biopic, Amelia, Coco Before Chanel is a beautiful but distant film that focuses just a bit too much on love triangles—and a bit too little on the woman in the middle.

Tautou’s Coco is a distinctive character—and she certainly stands out in a crowd. She’s black and white in a sea of frothy pastels—a strikingly plain yet elegant figure in tailored vests, ties, and simple hats, surrounded by pampered princesses in tight, layered gowns, with feathers in their carefully styled hair. She’s thoughtful and serious—and her big, expressive brown eyes speak more than the character herself.

Unfortunately, though, no matter how charming Tautou may be, her eyes can tell just so much of the story—and it’s difficult to truly understand Coco’s thoughts, her feelings, or her motivation. And although the story offers bits and pieces of Coco’s younger days—and perhaps even a brief glimpse or two of the woman behind those thoughtful, expressive eyes—it pays too much attention to her strange relationships with both Balsan and Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola). And when it’s all over, you may feel as though you know about Coco Chanel, but you won’t feel as though you truly know her.

Still, like Coco herself, Coco Before Chanel is simply elegant—and that alone makes it significantly more watchable than Amelia. From the rich, detailed costumes to the lush cinematography, it’s a striking film. And while it may keep its remarkable subject at a distance, it also provides a fascinating look at turn-of-the-century France—from its style to its social conventions. And for fans of period dramas, that will be enough to make it worth watching.

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