By focusing on the years between our heroine’s early gigs as seamstress and showgirl in a provincial musical hall—where she sings a song about a little pooch named Coco and inadvertently christens both herself and a global empire—and her ascension to wildly famous fashion icon, Coco Avant Chanel manages to stave off a number of the pitfalls that commonly plague bio-pics. The film steers clear of lazy psychology, mercifully failing to conform to motivational speaker oversimplifications about how successful and influential people are supposedly made. It also avoids simply telling us what we would likely already know going in by offering a sort of biographical greatest hits collection.
The Coco—née Gabrielle—Chanel depicted here is a woman frustrated but undaunted by compromise. She will make concessions, but she measures them by the millimeter rather than the yard, and never lets her benefactors forget that she resents having to surrender something of herself. Call it part of her charm. Raised in an orphanage and coming to adulthood with few advantages, she escapes drudgery by becoming a sort of kept woman—kept, but not contained. The difference between the two is perhaps the real subject of the film. It is in any case the most interesting one. Coco Avant Chanel is less a chronicle of upward mobility, or the designer/ businesswoman as a young cross-dressing social climber, than it is a surprisingly intriguing, sometimes sexy essay on the vagaries of self-realization and the oft-hidden moral untidiness of asserting a feminine or even feminist presence and sensibility upon an unsuspecting public.
Based on Edmonde Charles-Roux’s book L’Irrégulière ou Mon Itinéraire Chanel and scripted by director Anne Fontaine and her sister Camille Fontaine, the overall style of the film is rather more conventional and classy than the subversive nuggets of its themes suggest. The music from Benjamin Button composer Alexandre Desplat has a sprinkling of the twee-fantastic to it and gets in the way of a few of the thornier scenes. Christophe Beaucarne’s photography is likewise a bit too sleek and cute on occasion, favouring shots that isolate Coco, her back to the camera, in the centre of the frame, as if to say, Look, there’s a famous person, and the whole world’s just happening around her. But signals of the precociousness or uniqueness of Coco are thankfully limited to playable actions, her listening to the nuns and whispering girls at the orphanage rather than actively participating in their social life, her radical adjustments to hats and dresses and men’s clothes, driven by compulsion. Gorgeous pastoral scenery—Coco comes to live with a wealthy industrialist in his country mansion—is savoured without becoming too overbearing. The film is obviously designed as Oscar candy, but at least it doesn’t make too slobbery a show of it.
The tangled emotional lives of its characters fare well as conjured by the brilliant supporting cast, Benoît Poelvoorde especially. He plays the industrialist/sugar daddy, sliding gracefully between snotty, privileged presumptuousness and understated heartbreak over the deepening adoration he feels for this poor girl he ostensibly rescued. Emmanuelle Devos gives a marvelous turn as an attractive actress slipping into middle-age who Coco seduces by simply removing all the extraneous hubbub from her headgear. The relationships between Coco and these two characters form the film’s most fascinating threads. And Coco herself is embodied by Audrey Tautou with appealing reserve. She holds nearly everything back, as though fearing it’ll all slip through her fingers if she were to allow herself much vulnerability. It’s a good strategy for a leading player in a bio-pic, particularly one in which the heroine is distinguished by her enigmatic persona and her championing of sensible, form-enhancing—rather than overpowering—style. There’s a delightful moment where she orders a fussy tailor to “Do as I say” before finishing him off with a strangely sincere little smile. Tautou is at times characterized as lacking substance, but it’s the lightness of her touch that rules the day in her best work.