Director Anne Fontaine has said of the iconic French fashion designer Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, “It was not so much the fashion as the characteristics of this exceptional woman that interested me.” Hence Coco avant Chanel, like its title suggests, is about Coco Chanel’s personal life during her formative years before her clothing designs transformed her into a globally recognised household name. Played by Audrey Tautou, Chanel (or Coco as she is referred to throughout this film) is a cynical, independent and headstrong woman who doesn’t suffer fools. She climbs her way out of poverty and into society through an unconventional affair with Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), an older aristocrat, only to fall in love with Arther ‘Boy’ Capel (Alessandro Nivola), a young English businessman.
In many ways Coco avant Chanel is comparable to the 2007 Édith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose. Despite being set 30 years apart, both films are crowd-pleasers about iconic French women who went from rags to riches. Both Piaf and Chanel climbed out of poverty and into society, both women were fiercely independent self-made women, and both of them suffered tragic love lives. However, while La Vie en Rose skilfully and engagingly weaved together both the details of Piaf’s personal life and the details of her professional life, Coco avant Chanel predominantly focuses on Coco’s private life. The young woman/older man relationship is refreshingly portrayed as a complex power play, rather than a contrived male fantasy, however the men in Coco’s life do dominate the telling of her story. Coco’s attitudes towards fashion (she disliked the frivolous fashion that was so popular at the time, she integrated men’s fashion into women’s fashion, and she triumphed simplicity and comfort) are touched upon, but her work and the social implications of her designs are of secondary importance.
Audrey Tautou is an incredibly photogenic actor and she looks wonderful in the various Chanel outfits that she gets to wear in the film. However, Tautou is a very limited performer and struggles to give depth to the character. Tautou portrays Coco adequately but doesn’t come close to giving her the range that Marion Cotillard gave to Piaf in La Vie en Rose. This criticism can in fact be applied to Coco avant Chanel as a whole. The detailed production design, the sweeping cinematography and the lush musical score are all impressive and facilitate the story well but there is nothing in Coco avant Chanel that is ever particularly remarkable. Similarly the very straightforward narrative facilitates a basic biopic storyline without any surprises or truly standout moments. Coco avant Chanel is a competent and perfectly functional film but competence and functionality alone do not make for riveting viewing.