At the turn of the 20th century, French women of style were gilded peacocks festooned with jewels, gaudy things cinched so tightly at the waist that they could not breathe, teetering on claw feet.
Then along came Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1882-1971), who favored hats without feathers, dresses without corsets, and shoes without heels. Her mobile clothes made women mobile.
Coco Before Chanel, Anne Fontaine's elegant portrait of the couturier in the years before she officially opened shop, stars Audrey Tautou. Eyes like matched truffles and lips pursed into a permanent pout, Tautou is not the fetching gamine of Amélie. She is determined and prickly and forward-looking as the peasant who would dress princesses, the rootless young woman set on becoming not something but someone.
Wisely, Fontaine glosses over Chanel's youth, much of it spent in a convent orphanage, where she learned to sew. The designer who would disdain embroidery and ornament was known to embroider biographical "facts" about her history. Fontaine takes note that the most important facts of Chanel's youth are that the originator of high fashion's Little Black Dress and crisp white collar might have been inspired by nuns' habits and wimples.
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"Success," Chanel famously observed, "is often achieved by those who don't know that failure is inevitable." Fontaine, who cowrote (with her sister, Camille) and directed, shows how young Chanel courts failure first as a showgirl and then as a courtesan before she finds her metier.
Seamstress by day and singer by night, Chanel — petulant but pretty — attracts men in the provincial taverns where she and her sister sing. One is wealthy playboy Étienne Balsan (Belgian actor Benoît Poelvoorde, heartbreakingly fine). When Chanel gets fired for back-talking to her boss, Balsan sponsors her in Paris. As Fontaine tells it, in the opulent capital where rooms and women are decorated like wedding cakes, Chanel is severe, not supple.
Jobless and joyless, Chanel dresses in her shabby best and parks herself at Balsan's chateau in the Paris suburbs. First, she steals Balsan's shirts and jackets to fashion herself some mannish duds. Then she steals his heart.
Along the way, she designs hats for the actresses and aristocrats who are guests of the host's permanent house party. As she walks through Balsan's overstuffed, overdecorated rooms inhabited by overstuffed, overdecorated party-goers, you see her gaze penetrating to the bones of architecture and people. Rebelling against the maximalism of the gilded age, Chanel coins a minimalist language of clothes, borrowing from sources humble (fisherman jerseys) and high (bespoke tailoring).
Maybe it's just the subtitles, but it would seem that Fontaine has a keener eye for the elements that made Chanel's style than she has an ear for dialogue. But she gets a splendid performance from Tautou, who plays Chanel like a time bomb that explodes into a bouquet. Likewise from Alessandro Nivola as "Boy" Capel, the self-made Englishman who showed Chanel how to become a self-made woman.