Coco Before Chanel (PG-13)
Kimball's Peak Three
Ahh, Coco Chanel. She freed women from the tyranny of torturous undergarments. She didn't merely dare to wear trousers, she made them fashionable for women. You know what else she did? She introduced the idea of the skinny, boyish figure as an impossible ideal, which has now become the model for today's high fashion.
It wasn't Chanel's fault, of course: she was reacting to the impossible styles of her day, like the corset, which attempted to impose ridiculous, exaggerated hourglass shapes even where none existed. And hats that looked like a florist exploded.
Women, we just can't win.
Audrey Tautou's Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel does look refreshingly sleek and sophisticated when she makes her first appearance — at a party thrown by her lover, bored gentry Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) — in his cut-down suit jacket and shirt, a jaunty necktie finishing off her menswear ensemble. She looks amazing, surrounded by women who flounce around like fluffy Edwardian fruit cups. But moments like that — in which we feel the impact of Chanel's legacy — are, tant pis, all too rare in Coco Before Chanel. It suffers, perhaps, from being too much like its subject: plain, unadorned and practical to the point of dispassion.
It's hard to know whether that's the fault of Tautou — though it seems unlikely, given the spirit she brought to Amelie a few years back — or of director Anne Fontaine (who wrote the screenplay with Camille Fontaine, based on a book by Edmonde Charles-Roux, a former editor of French Vogue). But there's an anesthetized feel to this sedate biopic that suggests problems in its focus. Maybe the more interesting part of her life was after she became the fashion icon, when her style rebellion took hold, when she was accused of collaboration with the Nazis during the occupation of Paris. That sounds pretty darn exciting, actually.
Because there's not much that's awfully rebellious in the young Coco here, plodding through her early life, a poor girl from an orphanage who worked as a seamstress and dance-hall singer. Yes, she had affairs with rich men like Balsan — who treats her like dirt because he realizes she loves him only for the material comforts he provides. (Poelvoorde, as Balsan, offers the film's most dynamic presence in a love-to-hate-him sort of way.) She had another with suave playboy Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola, who's wonderfully oily here).
But this was France, and a gal could be someone's mistress and still be respectable. "I always knew I'd be no man's wife," she says to Capel, and the undercurrent is that her assertive independence was the basis for all her work to come. But it wasn't a particularly uncharacteristic attitude for a Frenchwoman, even of her time; even Chanel's sister (Marie Gillain) maintains a similar situation with her aristocratic lover.
The moments that hint at how Chanel would rock the foundations of fashion are almost asides: how she snips the corset strings off two stolen dance hall dresses to make them more comfortable, or how she decorates a straw hat with just a few simple accoutrements. They slide by barely noticed, as if this weren't a film supposedly about those very moments. We're left with the sense not that Chanel was forging a path for herself, even if she could have had no idea where that path would take her, but that she was just as detached from her work as she may have been from her heart.