Published Oct 01, 2009Just because this ― one of three bio-pics on Coco Chanel as of late ― takes place before the noted fashion designer started her line doesn't mean that clothing as mode of inner-expression isn't a dominant theme. In fact, this story of Coco Chanel (Audrey Tautou), a determined, steely orphan forging ahead against all odds, defines her character by her simple garments, often fashioned from men's wardrobes for ease of wear and freedom from constrictive corsets.
She doesn't much care for rules, demanding the world adapt to her, rather than catering to its expectations of women in the early 1900s. Following her from the orphanage, the film picks up with Coco and companion Adrienne (Marie Gillain) working as seamstresses and singing in nightclubs for spare change. Their future prospects are minimal, which is why Adrienne snags the opportunity to become the wife of a man of means readily, leaving Coco to depend on an audition arranged by Etienne (Benoit Poelvoorde), a wealthy playboy interested in more than the young woman's singing voice.
Throwing caution to the wind, Coco eventually winds up living in Etienne's mansion, hidden away from prying eyes for his sexual whims, until she forces her way into society, designing hats for various women and catching the eye of Etienne's financial advisor, Arthur (Alessandro Nivola).
Most of the buzz surrounding this film involves Audrey Tautou's performance, sharing physical characteristics with the titular figure and slipping into the character with despondent relish. It's true; the actress known mostly as Amélie demonstrates versatility here, capturing the frustration of fulfilling one's desires, contrary to social expectations.
The film itself is fair, filmed beautifully and paced deliberately to capture our protagonist's inner-struggle, which some would describe as slow and others as thoughtful. Either way, as bio-pics are typically panegyric and laden with stilted exposition, Anne Fontaine's Coco Avant Chanel proves ahead of the game by making a film that actually seems like one, rather than a glorified A&E special. (Alliance)