A Balanced, Finely Tuned Biography: Tautou Glows
Grady Harp | Los Angeles, CA United States | 09/25/2010
(5 out of 5 stars)
"COCO BEFORE CHANEL may have been avoided by some who thought the film might be a superficial sob story about a 'little girl that makes good' - another cutesy venue for Audrey Tautou fans. Nothing could be further from fact. Instead Writer/director Anne Fontaine (with Camille Fontaine) adapted the book by Edmonde Charles-Roux into a screenplay that is a serious look at times in La Belle Epoque France, a time when a little orphan girl and her sister made the best of losing parents, learning a trade, and using their fortitude to move into the upper circles of a society into which their presence was forbidden. Yes, this could have been a saccharine mess of a movie, but due to the writing, directing and acting it is exactly the opposite: nothing can defeat an indomitable spirit.
The film opens in France of 1893 as we see two sisters, motherless and with a father that is unable to cope, dropped off to an orphanage. The girls mature into Gabrielle/Coco (Audrey Tautou) and Adrienne (Marie Gillian) Chanel, gain skills as seamstresses and popularity for their singing at little parties. Adrienne falls for a man of wealth and leaves Coco to develop her skills as a designer of chapeaux and dresses. Her independent spirit is mirrored in the manner in which she does away with the excesses of contemporary garb (feather, birds, fake flowers, lots of ruffles and flounces and trains) and dresses in a more masculine, yet still very sophisticatedly beautiful way. She is noticed by a gentleman landowner, Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) and Coco decides to take advantage of the comforts of wealth, moving in as Étienne's secret guest. Through Étienne's connection she meets French actress Emilienne d'Alençon (Emmanuelle Devos) who eagerly approves of Coco's fashion instincts and uses Coco's clothes in public and on stage, introducing the genius that wiil become Coco Chanel. Coco also meets a British investor Arthur 'Boy' Capel (Alessandro Nivola in an astonishingly fine role) who provides financing for a studio in Paris where Coco becomes a popular fashion designer - and also falls in love with Boy only to lose him in a automobile accident. By this time Coco's no nonsense approach to fashion - simplicity and understatement - has taken hold and the film ends with a parade on the Chanel stairway of mirrors of her magnificent creations: the saddened by indomitable Coco sits on the stairs as her models parade before an impressed audience.
Audrey Tautou continues to grow as an actress and this may be her finest achievement to date. She portrays Coco as a strong woman with a vulnerability she is able to camouflage. The entire cast is strong, with special nods to American born Alessandro Nivola who delivers his entire performance in impeccable French. The cinematography of Paris and the countryside is beautifully captured by cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne, the gorgeous costumes are the work of Catherine Leterrier, and the musical score is perfectly placed in the always capable hands of Alexandre Desplat. But much of the success of the film rests in the brilliant direction of Anne Fontaine who has managed to give us a fully three-dimensional picture of not only the brilliant Coco Chanel but of the times in Paris that nourished her rise and forever altered the way women would be perceived as equal to men. Excellent! Grady Harp, September 10"