Coco Before Chanel follows the life of the iconic fashion innovator up to the first years of her success as a designer. Tautou plays Chanel, from her beginnings as a singer in a seedy saloon, where she is spotted by the French socialite Etienne Balsan, who takes her as his mistress, promising her dreams, yet delivering only hurt. Balsan is played wonderfully by Benoit Poelvoorde, a man consumed with fun and frivolities who fails to see Chanel’s promise. Their relationship is tortured by his decadent lifestyle and obsession with public image, hiding her away whilst he entertains business clients and humiliating her by making her entertain his courtesan friends, including Emmanuelle Devos as the infamous and fantastically over-dressed Emilienne d’Alencon.
Balsan’s is a world of incestuous self indulgence and upper class depravity, and something Chanel seeks to escape: enter Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, (Alessandro Nivola), a genteel Englishman who whisks her off her feet. Theirs is a whirlwind romance, and Tautou’s fragility perfectly embodies the pain she experiences when the brutish Balsan informs her of Capel’s impending marriage to an English noblewoman. Nivola is charming and his appearance promises a more Hollywood-acceptable romance than Poelvoorde’s, yet his character is little more than love interest, and we learn little of his life.
Aside from the main romantic triangle, this is the story of how Chanel’s strived for independence and success as a businesswoman. Throughout the film, upper class characters tell her that women should not work, and Balsan suggests she is better off as his plaything, but Chanel chooses the labour of love, and creates some fantastic hats for Balsan’s mistresses as well as androgynous yet elegant outfits for herself whilst residing at the Chateau de Royallieu, out of Balsan’s old clothes: a stroke of genius by the costume department.
The costumes are undeniably beautiful and mostly extravagant, yet Tautou’s wardrobe is understated and simple, tasteful and effortlessly stylish, and her petite frame carries the pieces with grace. The fancy dress party hosted Balsan is another opportunity for the costumier to create many wonderful and absurd pieces, and the party itself embodies the vacuous nature of the socialite existence, with men chasing courtesans about the grounds in a sexualised game of hide-and-seek.
The grace and style of Chanel’s costumes is reflected in the cinematography, and director Anne Fontaine uses some beautiful shots of the French countryside. The scenes taking place at the seaside are also artfully shot, yet the palate is grey, perhaps foreboding the relationship between Chanel and Apel.
Coco Before Chanel aptly portrays the often tragic, yet ever hopeful life of one of history’s most iconic and inspiring women, and Tautou blossoms in the role of orphan-turned-businesswoman extraordinaire in this chic biopic.