Director: Anne Fontaine
Starting in 1893, then the early part of the twentieth century. Gabrielle and her sister Antoinette are sent to an orphanage in Aubazine after their mother dies. Their father never visits, whilst Gabrielle doesn’t seem to fit in with the other children. After leaving, the sisters sing in a bar, attracting the attention of numerous male admirers. Gabrielle, now nicknamed ‘Coco’ after her signature song, receives the admiration of the millionaire playboy Etienne Balsan, who organizes an audition for her at the Alcazar in Paris after her sister becomes engaged to a baron but she is rejected.
Coco visits Etienne in Paris. He wants to keep her there as his ‘geisha’ and is reluctant to introduce her to his friends in high society. Undeterred, she gatecrashes a countryside picnic and Balsan’s friends are charmed by her eccentricity and individuality. She meets Arthur Capel, an English businessman and they fall in love, but unknown to Coco, Capel is engaged to an heiress in England. As Parisian high society falls for Coco’s individual style, she sets up a fashion house in Paris, financed by Capel. They maintain an affair but Capel soon dies in a car accident. As an epilogue, Coco’s success in the fashion world is documented.
After the financial and critical success of ‘La Vie en Rose’ (2007), the biopic of Edith Piaf, both domestically and internationally, it was perhaps inevitable that it would be closely followed by films cut from the same cloth. Hot on its heels comes ‘Coco Avant Chanel’, a conventional and elegant biopic of another famous, successful French woman of the twentieth century, the influential fashion designer, Coco Chanel. Starring Audrey Tautou, who revived French cinema as an internationally commercial entity in ‘Amelie’, there’s every chance it’ll succeed not just in its homeland, but also abroad, even more so given that film studios across the world seem to have suddenly woken up to the fact that half their audiences are female and ‘Coco Avant Chanel’ certainly chases this demographic.
Perhaps wisely, director Anne Fontaine decides not to cover Chanel’s entire life but to document her early years, before she became the iconic name Chanel is today. Instead, Fontaine concentrates on her childhood and early adulthood; from the Aubazine orphanage to the early establishment of her fashion house. It’s a rags to riches tale from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of the fashion world, challenging its male hegemony. Even though Coco herself is an independent spirit, defying convention, for dramatic effect no doubt, at the heart of the film is the influence upon her early life of two men who consider themselves prospective admirers; Etienne Balsan, who shows her a world of glamour and high society, and Arthur Capel, a dashing Englishman who wins her heart and from whose death, she seems destined to never recover.
It’s likely that the film will be sold equally on the premise of a romantic drama as it is a genuine look at a woman finding her way in life, succeeding in a man’s world. For a proto-feminist who professes to have no interest in love or men, Coco is disarmed by Capel’s looks and charms exceptionally easily, although the film makers will no doubt tell you it’s a tender, tragic romance that shaped Coco’s life irrevocably. Perhaps so, but with both corny scenes of love-making and dialogue (at a dance, she says to him “every woman is looking at you”, to which he responds, “no, they’re looking at you”), it’s sometimes difficult not to drive your fingernails into your palms in frustration at how clichéd it all becomes.
Part of the issue with ‘Coco Avant Chanel’ is precisely how tasteful and stylish it is to the point where it’s perfectly anodyne. The costumes, locations and production levels are all fine as you’d expect in a film about fashion but the film’s just lacking bite and substance. It’s suffocated by its middlebrow ways, has no real dramatic arc, no real reason to root for these people, no real reason to well…..care. Perhaps it’s too reverential to its subject, portraying Coco as nothing overly complicated or real, with unconvincing shifts in personality (changing from a headstrong young woman to a lover in a nanosecond) and not wishing to scratch beyond the surface or address any more subtle characteristics. That’s the nature of the beast with biopics generally though; why would film makers want to orchestrate a character assassination? Still, this doesn’t excuse such a limp oversight of Coco’s early years.
To be fair, the cast give it all they’ve got. Tautou’s an engaging, hypnotic presence as always (and not yet tempted to Hollywood like Marion Cotillard for instance) and the supporting cast, including Benoit Poelvoorde as Balsan are perfectly fine. ‘Coco Avant Chanel’ sits nicely into the category of one of those films where everything is ‘right’, there’s nothing technically or even objectively to criticise, but one’s overall feelings about the films arises solely from a subjective decision. There’s nothing to set it apart from other films of its ilk – the shadow of ‘La Vie en Rose’ hangs over it as though it would never have been produced without the latter’s success. It’s competent, comfortable, safe film making, but who genuinely wants that? For all that one can admire about it, ‘Coco Avant Chanel’ can probably be summed up perfectly in one five letter word….bland.