Directed by Anne Fontaine and co-written with Camille Fontaine, Coco avant Chanel (Coco Before Chanel) is the story of Coco Chanel’s early life and rise into becoming one of the top fashion designers in the world. Based on the book by Edmond Charles-Roux, the film is a bio-pic of Chanel that focuses on her early years where she starts out as an obscure seamstress and mistress into finding ideas that would revolutionize fashion. Starring Audrey Tautou as Coco Chanel, the film also stars Benoit Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola, Marie Gillain, and Emmanuelle Devos. Coco avant Chanel is an extraordinary yet gorgeous bio-pic from Anne Fontaine.
It’s 1918 as Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel and her sister Adrienne (Marie Gillain) are working at a bar singing songs as they meet a socialite named Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde). While Gabrielle also works part time as a seamstress, she becomes friends with Balsan as they talk about ideas where she eventually becomes her mistress. When Adrienne reveals she’s getting married to another baron, Gabrielle decides to join Balsan at his countryside estate where Adrienne lives nearby. Though living at his home seemed fun, it eventually bores Gabrielle who is forced to entertain Balsan’s guests as she meets a vivacious stage actress in Emilienne d’Alencon (Emmanuelle Devos) and a young British businessman named Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola.
While Coco starts to create designer hats that simplifies the look of the hats of the times, she begins to fall for Capel as he is amazed by the clothes she wears as well as her approach to fashion. With d’Alencon also impressed by the design of Coco’s hats, Coco begins to wonder about the world of fashion as she goes on a brief holiday with Capel to the beach where she gets some new ideas. Still frustrated with her time with Balsan, she decides to leave while learning that Capel is set to marry a woman for business reasons. Yet, Capel makes an offer to give her money to help start her own business as she leaves Balsan to go on her own. Just as she was starting to find success, tragedy would happen forcing Coco to find inspiration to become the icon of fashion design.
Most bio-pics would often go into a person’s life by creating dramatic interpretations into one’s life and see how they would rise, fall, and eventually redeem themselves. What Anne Fontaine and her-co writer Camille did is to simply focus on Coco Chanel’s early life before she became famous instead of focusing on her entire life. While with a lot of bio-pics, there are dramatic liberties that are used to advance the story. The script doesn’t go too much into that but rather see how this young woman who starts off being a mistress for a baron as she finds inspiration through what women are wearing.
Chanel is presented as this woman who is a rebellious figure of sorts in the way she deconstructs the idea of what women should wear. To her, the idea of wearing these lavish yet big dresses and hats filled with lots of accessories seems very silly. What Chanel does is strip all of that down. By wearing trousers, shoes with no heels, a hat with no accessories, a shirt, and underwear underneath with no corsets. All of it is Chanel’s idea to make a woman look and feel comfortable. The script really delves into Chanel’s approach to fashion while proving that through the love affairs that she goes through, it would make her become a woman of independence that would define her legacy. While she it doesn’t mean that she needs a man in her life, she does like the idea of having someone to be with and to support her. The Fontaines’ script is superb for the way it studies Chanel in the way she would develop from this orphaned mistress into the woman that she becomes.
Anne Fontaine’s direction is truly hypnotic for the way she frames many of the countryside scenes as well as keeping the film simple with any kind of melodrama. There is a much more controlled yet subtle approach to the direction as it’s all about Chanel taking in the posh world she surrounds herself in while being also a bit disgusted with it. Fontaine always has the camera moving but in a slow movement for Chanel to look at the people and its surroundings while showing how she would make these dresses. There is a simplicity to Fontaine’s direction that is very entrancing as well as maintaining an elegance that is very intoxicating to watch. Overall, Fontaine creates a solid yet enchanting film that doesn’t try to play to the conventions of the bio-pic genre.
Cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne does a great job with the film‘s lush yet exquisite cinematography that captures the beauty of the French countryside while heightening it with colorful lighting to enhance the look for its interior settings. Beaucarne also keep things simple for the scene at the beach as well as exterior shots in Paris to exemplify Chanel’s desire for simplicity. Editor Luc Barnier does an excellent job with the editing to maintain a pretty straightforward approach to pacing and cutting while using a few transitional fade-outs to help move the film quite seamlessly.
Production designer Olivier Radot does a fantastic job with the art direction from the look of the bars that Coco worked at to the Balsan estate that is very spacious and elegant that would give Coco a place to find her ideas. Costume designer Catherine Leterrier does an amazing job with the clothes the men wear to the lavish dresses the women wear circa-1913. Yet, it would be the clothes that Chanel would wear that proves to be inspiring as it would be the prototypes for the clothes that would define her and women’s fashion in the years to come. Makeup and hair designers Thi Thanh Tu Nguyen and Jane Milon do a brilliant job with the hair and makeup that the women wear from big hair that d‘Alencon sports to the more simple look of Chanel that would become the modern look.
Sound editor Jean-Claude Laureux does a fine job with the sound work to capture the intimacy of the Balsan estate as well as the raucous party scenes that goes on throughout portions of the film. The film’s score by Alexandre Desplat is magnificent for its sweeping yet delicate orchestral arrangements that is filled with somber piano pieces to more dream-like pieces to play up to Chanel’s own rising interest in the world around her. Notably as Desplat also creates pieces to bring energy to Chanel in the creation of the clothes that she would make for what is definitely a marvelous score
The casting by Antonia Dauphin is wonderful as it features a couple of small appearances from Lisa Cohen and Ines Bessalem in the respective young roles of Gabrielle and Adrienne Chanel. Other small but noteworthy performances include Marie Gillain as Coco’s supportive sister Adrienne and Emmanuelle Devos as the vivacious Emilienne d’Alencon. Alessandro Nivola is excellent as the charming yet quiet Boy Capel while Benoit Poelvoorde is great as the fun though lazy Balsan. Finally, there’s Audrey Tautou in an outstanding performance as Coco Chanel. Tautou brings a wonderful mix of energy and restraint to a woman that is clearly very stubborn and determined to make it as a designer. Tautou also brings an elegance that is very engaging to watch for the way she looks as it she makes Chanel into an intriguing personality that is very human as it’s definitely one of Tautou’s finest performances.
Coco avant Chanel is an excellent yet beautiful film from Anne Fontaine featuring a radiant performance from Audrey Tautou as Coco Chanel. The film is definitely a bio-pic that strays from the conventions of the genre while allowing the audience to be invested into the development of Chanel’s early years before she became the icon of the fashion world. Fans of Audrey Tautou will get a chance to see the actress bring a lot of dramatic weight and discipline to a figure that is so revered as Chanel. In the end, Coco avant Chanel is an exquisite yet captivating film from Anne Fontaine.
Anne Fontaine Films: (Love Affairs Usually End Badly) - (Augustin) - L’@mour est a reinventer) - Nettoyage a sec) - (Augustin, King of Kung-Fu) - (Comment j’ai tue mon pere) - (Nathalie…) - (In His Hands) - (Nouvelle Chance) - (The Girl from Monaco) - (My Worst Nightmare)
© thevoid99 2011
I've been meaning to see this movie for ages! Thanks for the great review!
You're welcome. I recommend it for anyone that is just interested in Chanel or unconventional bio-pics.
I saw this film but wasn't that much impressed, probably, because it was on TV and was interrupted by commercials a few times. I don't know if I ever decide to re-visit it but I loved how you described the camerawork here. It's a shame I didn't notice it then.
@Leysa-I don't recommend watching films with commercial interruptions. It ruins the pace of the film and for the viewer to be engrossed in the story.
It's worth a second look but make sure you watch it without interruptions.
Great review! I have to see this film now, I really love Audrey and I'm in the mood of watching biopics lately.
@Sati-This film is one of the better bio-pics out there because it only talks about a certain period in a woman's life and not her whole life. That's what makes great bio-pics stand apart from the rest.
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