Review: Coco Before Chanel

Coco Avant Chanel | Anne Fontaine, 2009

Upon hearing about things being made, it immediately became one of my most anticipated movies of the year. I don’t know much about fashion, but I do admire Coco Chanel’s work; so when I heard that Audrey Tautou was going to star in a movie about this famous icon, I could not help but be excited. Upon release the critical reception was rather cold. Most of the criticisms came from the story being rather plain, and because it didn’t have a screaming scene such as Marion Cotillard’s in La Vie en Rose after her lover died.  Yes, she didn’t live a hard life, and if she did, this movie doesn’t focus on that but on what made her become who she was, and that I found to be the reason why this movie is so great.

Coco Before Chanel takes on the months before Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel began making her future. At first, we see her as a child being dumped at an Orphanage with her sister by her father. Next, we see the two of them working as singers in a saloon. There, Coco meets Étienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), a rich business man and the person who nicknamed her Coco. Eventually, circumstances make her go after him just so she can live in a nice house. At first Balsan is reluctant, but she stays, and there she falls in love with “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola). Things then happen that inspired her to become the fashion icon that she was.

As I said, the fact that a movie was made about a famous person who didn’t have a hard life made this movie great. We get great insight into Coco and Balsan relationship and we never get the impression that Balsan thinks that Coco is his. He knows why she is there and understands that she should be able to go whenever she wants. Even after she decides that she wants to go with the hotshot businessman, although he is hurt. He lets her do what she wants. Even after she left, they were good friends. Also, her relationship with Boy is clear. After the truth about him is revealed she does have a bit of a break down, but she never gets too hung up on him. Yes, it is still very clichéd, but I found the simplicity of the story rather refreshing.

Another why the reason succeeds is because of the performances, particularly Tautou’s. I don’t know much about Chanel as a person, but I would imagine she was as headstrong as she portrays her. She is so convincing that I indeed forgot that she was Audrey Tautou. Poelvoorde is also quite good. If my information is correct, he is mostly known for his comedic work in France. Had I not know that I would have thought that he was a well-regarded dramatic actor. Nivola is good, but not nearly as good as the other two that I just mentioned.

The below-the-line work is also excellent. Catherine Leterier’s Oscar-nominated costumes are exquisite. The cinematography and the sets are also great, and Alexandre Desplat adds yet another great score to the many he put out in 2009. Anne Fontaine’s direction is good, but very by-the-numbers.

Coco Before Chanel is one of my favorite movies of the year. The story is simple and not very dramatic, but it still manages to be powerful, and Audrey Tautou’s performance alone makes this worth watching. Even if you are not a fashion enthusias, this is a very good way to spend two hours.


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