Gabrielle Chanel was, by the evidence presented in director Anne Fontaine’s Coco Before Chanel, a difficult, even unpleasant woman. Rarely does she smile, and even more infrequently might her sentiments be mistaken for tender. She views the men in her early life as means to an end, but why shouldn’t she? They often regard her, in turn, with cold indifference and undisguised condescension.
Played by Audrey Tautou, who radiated sweetness and warmth as the star of Amélie (2001) but has no trouble doing the opposite here, Chanel would become one of the legendary fashionistas of her era. (She was better known, of course, as “Coco,” a nickname she adopted from a song she sang in bars with her sister Adrienne, portrayed by Marie Gillain.) Yet Fontaine, who co-wrote the screenplay with her own sister, Camille, is more interested in the designer’s formative years, which began, in abject poverty, in an orphanage.
The Fontaines largely avoid sentimentality in their depiction of Chanel, and rather than identifying some childhood slight as the motive for her drive to succeed – there’s no “Rosebud” here – they are impartial witnesses to her rise. She manipulates the social order as skillfully as a woman in her position could, usually with the help of more powerful men: Étienne Balsan (the excellent Benoît Poelvoorde), a wealthy farmer who takes her as a mistress, and English businessman Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola), a more romantic but similarly flawed alternative.
Neither is an ideal match, but Chanel makes the most of her contacts, for both personal and professional gain. Everywhere she goes, she finds inspiration – a simple hat here, a handsome pair of pajamas there – that fuels her creative passion. She tucks away ideas for later use, and it’s of little importance that we never get to revel in her ultimate success. We’ve seen the seeds planted, and for proof of how they blossomed, one need only visit any house of the haute-est couture.
That doesn’t make Coco Before Chanel as consistently fascinating a portrait as, say, Valentino: The Last Emperor, a documentary that exposed an aging fashion icon’s insecurities even after decades of life in the limelight. But it remains effective, a chronicle of ambition pitted against a social system designed to keep women like Chanel out of that light altogether. Her legacy is proof of its failure.
Coco Before Chanel is playing at the Red Vic all this week.