Coco Before Chanel

Because biopics must touch the bases of a human life, there is a certain formality to such films. The best you can hope for, sometimes, isn’t brilliance but to do the person justice.

Anne Fontaine’s Coco Avant Chanel (Coco Before Chanel, in French) is a lush French film that does justice to its subject. It is a project seemingly willed to quality by the commitment of the performers, starting with the French star Audrey Tautou, who make us care as much as they.

The film centers on Chanel’s pre-fame love triangle with the Count Balsan (a fantastic Benoit Poelvoorde), whom she serves as both best friend and kept plaything, and his English financial planner Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola), who will liberate her by backing her business ventures. It’s a sophisticated relationship quandary that deserves a better class of obstacles than society marriages and bad driving. But biopics can only take what reality dishes out.

Coco Avant Chanel is so convinced of its premise of Chanel as a prototype modern businesswoman that you almost don’t notice that she’s partially slept her way to the top. This should pose a dilemma for feminist ideology–is it acceptable to sexually play upon the power of men to achieve your own power? Is that playing into the system, or is that subverting it? That is an interesting question. Yet the film accepts her path without much comment.

Instead we get a very satisfying love story and character study, and an interesting perspective on turn-of-the-century class–the poor girl becomes a leveler of style, slowly infecting the Old World frockery with the egalitarian beauty of orphanage simplicity. She’s drawn to that world, drawn in by it, and yet remains aloof as if in some test of personal purity. It’s the most mature role and performance we’ve seen from Audrey Tautou, who brings proud vulnerability with the same ease that she does Gallic froth.