October 15, 2009

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Coco Before Chanel (PG-13)
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel goes from an orphan to an international fashion superstar, inventing “chic” along the way, in Coco Before Chanel, a fascinating French-language biopic of the designer.

Don’t let the prospect of subtitles scare you away — particularly if you are a Project Runway fan or simply a period movie junkie. From the in-depth look at a corset to the scene where Coco discovers jersey, this movie is worth suffering through some shaky translations here and there.

As children in the 1890s, Gabrielle (Lisa Cohen) and her sister Adrienne (Ines Bessalem) are left by their father at an orphanage. A decade or so later, Adrienne (Marie Gillian) and Gabrielle (Audrey Tautou) sing in a nightclub (including a song about a little dog that earns Gabrielle her nickname) and, by day, are seamstresses. The girls aren’t prostitutes but they do meet men at the club whom they want more than just a drink from. Adrienne eventually becomes the mistress — with promises of being his wife “one day” — of a baron, leaving Coco by herself in their rented flat. After failing in an audition to be a more professional kind of performer, she heads to the country home of Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), a man she met at the nightclub. Though he doesn’t really ask her to stay, she insinuates herself into his life. She becomes a sort of mistress — a sullen, not terribly feminine one who may or may not particularly like him. He isn’t particularly nice to her either — keeping her out of sight during parties and then coming to visit her afterward for drunken romps. Her time with him does introduce her to others in the bohemian side of French society, including an actress who becomes a fan of Coco’s hats and Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola), a man for whom Coco falls quite hard. As with Adrienne and her Baron, class stands between Coco and Arthur but he convinces her to believe in herself and her talent.

It’s refreshing to watch Tautou play Coco as a woman who grows into her beauty. She’s decidedly not pretty early in the movie — she’s too plain and rough around the edges. But as her style becomes more one that is simple rather than plain, elegant for its stark use of black and white, she becomes a more intriguing, more beguiling woman. It is, you suspect, something like how a real person would actually develop.

My only qualm with this story is that I feel it pulls away just as things are getting interesting. It follows the life and loves of early Coco and starts to separate us from her just as Chanel comes into being. We learn in the end that she triumphed in a field previously dominated by men, but we don’t get a chance to see her do it.

This doesn’t, however, take away from the look we do get at Coco. It’s a different kind of portrait of an early 20th-century woman — one that doesn’t shy away from ugliness while still letting its heroine be remarkably optimistic. B

Rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking. Directed by Anne Fontaine and written by Anne Fontaine and Camille Fontaine (from a book by Edmonde Charles-Roux), Coco Before Chanel (called Coco Avant Chanel in French) is an hour and 50 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Warner Bros. International.