The experience of watching most movie biopics is like being told about a dream an acquaintance had: It's rarely as interesting as it was to the person who had it. When biographical films have been successful recently, it's because they've leavened the inherent genre negatives by basing the film on a lesser-known subject (Milk), by focusing on the person behind the persona (Ali), or by benefiting from a great performance (Ray) or the participation of a masterful filmmaker (The Aviator).
The new biopic Coco Before Chanel, about the celebrated 20th-century fashion designer, gets the benefit of a little bit of each of these. Chanel is an icon for what she produced (and the effect it had), but I suspect her life story is new information to the majority of viewers, even excluding those like me: males born after she died who know the name and nothing else.
Audrey Tautou (Amélie, Dirty Pretty Things) stars as Coco. Her performance is excellent in a naturalistic way, eschewing the sentiment of the character's inevitable greatness and embracing the boundaries of the film's title (excepting one gorgeous scene at the end of the film).
We first meet Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel as she's installed at an orphanage in 1893 along with her sister, Adrienne (played in adulthood by Marie Gillain), abandoned by their father. Fifteen years later, Coco is performing duets with her sister in a saloon — her nickname comes from a song they sing about a dog. Coco's bored by the charms of wealthy, vapid playboys visiting the bar, and she fends off their advances with frowns and lines such as, "A woman in love is helpless like a begging dog."
Coco envisions a future as a stage performer in a nice club in Paris — sewing is her day job, as a seamstress at a tailor shop, but at first it's more menial labor than a prospect for her fortunes. When her sister escapes the life by becoming the paramour of an affluent man, Coco follows suit and aggressively chases the attention of the aristocrat Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde).
As she progresses in society, her instincts for clothing design and alterations catch the eye of increasingly influential people. She also meets the love of her life, Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola), a rich English polo player who acts as muse and financier to her budding fashion inclinations. In the main, what sets Coco apart is her modernizing changes to the fashion of the day — literally liberating women from their corsets — and the ways she can take out a bit here, snip off a little there, and transform traditional into progressive. Coco is a dress whisperer.
Coco Before Chanel is written and directed by Anne Fontaine, an unknown to me but someone worth exploring the filmography of. Fontaine infuses the film with an energy that is hard to pin down and classify but evident from the first images (the movie begins with burlap). It recalls the blood-veined vitality of Elizabeth and the textured reality of Julie & Julia.