She wanted to sing (and she did, albeit in a grim saloon). She wanted to act (and she did, albeit in a role as kept woman to wealthy, connected racehorse owner Étienne Balsan [a compelling Poelvoorde]). But it was ultimately a talent for sewing instilled by the nuns who raised Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (Tautou) after her father’s abandonment that would inform the ascension of the French designer who spearheaded circa-1910 fashion’s transformation from excessive form to simplistic functionality.
As its name suggests, subtitled biopic Coco Before Chanel focuses on the “rags” aspect of Chanel’s rags-to-riches story. In stark contrast to this year’s Valentino: The Last Emperor documentary, models, runways and universal adoration are glimpsed only at the end. For both, unself-conscious smiles are rare anomalies; effusive praise is hard-won. Unlike the high-strung Valentino Garavani’s tantrums, however, Chanel’s outbursts of passion are rooted in a much darker place. A prideful feminist before her time with a proclivity for chain-smoking and a disdain for frivolity, she ingratiates herself into Balsan’s social circle, regaling them with blunt, witty banter and no-nonsense philosophies on couture and romance. While actress Emilienne d’Alençon (Emmanuelle Devos) is enamored of Chanel’s perspective on the former, it is industrialist polo player Arthur “Boy” Chapel (Nivola) who shatters her convictions concerning the latter. Both tirelessly champion the designs inspired by Chanel’s comparatively sheltered life and the orphanage garb, horses and seascapes that populate it.
Tautou’s flinty portrayal more than adequately carries a film that might otherwise overestimate its audience’s tolerance for subtle glances and gestures. The action is largely predictable, even if the driving force at its core—unwavering ambition, not mere class repression, drove Chanel—isn’t. As self-prophesying fairy tale, Coco omits the later period its heroine spent shacked up at Paris’ Ritz hotel with a Nazi officer, as well as her affair with Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, a topic tackled in rival 2009 Cannes Film Festival closer Coco & Igor. Though the movie intentionally fails to provide a full picture, as a portrait of the artist as a young woman, its bold strokes almost do the colorful subject justice.