Anyone can make up interesting yet non-illuminating information about someone's life. For example, fashion icon Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was born in an Argentine ditch, had a photographic memory and was secretly obsessed with stamp collecting. None of these facts are true--although Chanel was known for fabricating her past--and while their veracity might have created some beautiful detailing, they give no sense of shape or design to the body of Chanel's life. Celebrated French director Anne Fontaine's film, Coco Before Chanel, is a beautiful rags-to-riches romance that reveals little beyond the colorful but question-marked minutiae of this pivotal couturiere's beginnings.
Former French ingenue Audrey Tautou (Amelie) plays Chanel, the convent-educated foundling trained as a seamstress but with dreams of the stage. Along with sister Adrienne (Marie Gillain), she cuts her cabaret teeth in back-alley taverns while cutting cloth for better-fed ladies. After their duo is divided by Adrienne's engagement to a duke, Coco--her nickname derived from a popular tune--takes up with Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), an idle aristocratic who attempts to keep her, Bluebeard-like, hidden away for drunken midnight trysts. But Coco, who realizes her vulnerability, sews herself a mannish wardrobe, teaches herself to ride horseback and introduces herself to Etienne's society friends by invading an afternoon picnic. She quickly becomes a fixture in his circle, entertaining actresses and financiers with her outlandish clothes and commoner charisma. Upon meeting self-made Brit Arthur Capel (American actor Alessandro Nivola), Chanel discards her former doctrine that love is a luxury and tumbles into a torrid affair that threatens her besotted benefactor's charity.
Both Chanel's and Capel's early lives are shrouded in mystery. Chanel herself took great pains to rewrite her own history, claiming a decade difference in her birthdate--younger, of course--and insisting that her father had sailed to America to support the family. Although director Fontaine (who penned the film with her own sister, Camille) acknowledges this predilection for falsity in a few scenes, she does her own fair share of revision, excising unattractive occurrences and fudging dates. The film exudes a feeling of placement, every aspect carefully considered and rejected if found unbecoming. From the perfect row of ewers in the orphanage to the fashion montage coda, Coco Before Chanel is wonderfully designed and woefully depthless. Besides vague abandonment issues and an amplified affair (the film's end text reminds us that she never married, but neglects to mention her wartime liaisons with a Nazi officer), we are given little insight into what makes her tick, receiving only a rough-sketch characterization.
While bearing a strong resemblance to the titular fashion maven certainly doesn't hurt, Audrey Tautou doesn't just skate by on looks. It's a pleasure to see her developing maturity both in her acting and her choice of roles, and her work here is excellent. Nivola and Poelvoorde both give sound performances as the rivaling lovers, while interjectory appearances by Emmanuelle Devos as Chanel's actress friend are delightful. Fontaine's direction is solid and measured, but lacks a bit of the vitality and oomph the film deserves. Cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne's and composer Alexandre Desplat's polishing touches go a long way toward giving this homage a semblance of a heart, but Coco Before Chanel, divested of careful accuracy and further accounting of Chanel's evolution toward the elegant woman she would become, is simply a pretty, well-performed love story and poor life story.