Directed by Anne Fontaine and based upon the book by Edmonde Charles-Roux, Coco Before Chanel is a biographical tale of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel set a timeline which is just that, before she founded the fashion empire. So for those who are more intrigued about the fashion world and the impact Chanel has on it, then this is not the movie you're looking for, as it firmly dwells on Coco as a person, and her romantic dalliances with two men who played significant roles in her life, be it in support of her daily sustenance, or inspiring and providing fuel for her desire to make a name for herself.
The film dedicated plenty of time in Coco's awakening toward the French high life of the time, since she became a voluntary kept mistress of rich playboy Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), who in a way had rescued her from poverty, and whose riches afforded to her provided that access to the slacker lifestyles of the rich and famous. The audience too get reminded time and again of how stifling a woman's place in high society was at the turn of the century, made worse by the restrictive clothing like corsets, frills, and lace from the neck right down to sweeping the floors. Coco's disdain and penchant for freedom led to bold designs that do not conform, starting from her hats which provided her some attention and notoriety even.
As Coco Chanel, Audrey Tautou epitomizes that level of elegance, vulnerability and rebellious streak to do things differently. Her petiteness and somewhat boyish cut figure probably suited the role really well as the initial designs by Coco were those inspired by menswear, though you only get glimpses of her design genius from short montages scattered throughout, and from some scenes which show her working at a tailor shop, but other than that you will gain very little from this bio-pic other than the messy love life that she got herself into, first with benefactor of sorts Etienne, who treated her nothing more than an object to bed in exchange for lodging, then Alessandro Nivola's Arthur “Boy”Capel, a businessman with whom she falls head over heels with. The romances do make you wonder about how careless the treatment of emotions are, where love and issues of marriage are quite trivially handled.
While Anne Fontaine nailed down the look of the film, the feel somehow was found to be lacking, as apart from the romantic angle, nothing else really rang through until the last act, which was a very hastily down finale to show the tremendous progress Coco had undergone once she had closed her heart, where she had broken through a society and introduced radical changes to an industry, from hats to influencing a lot more in the fashion world. How she did exactly that, is best left to another film because this one had little else other than repeated shots of scissors going through fabric.
Without a doubt the clothes here are the star of the show, from the fashions of societal norms in both directions of the rich-poor spectrum, to Coco Chanel's designs for her own with her menswear inspired pieces, and unfortunately, the glamour-chic pieces only making it through in a parting shot at the finale, since the founding of the business empire was grossly passed over deliberately. The opulently designed clothes of that era stand in stark contrast to the Chanel pieces, which celebrates sheer beauty and elegance in their simplicity, and probably from there, stamping its mark on the fashion industry.
Don't approach this film with an expectation that you would learn something of the beginnings of Chanel the brand and how it became the icon of today. In fact, it's more about the love and early life of its founder, who without her accomplishment and the name backing her, could have turned out to be nothing more than a generic, average, and perhaps even strange romantic picture. And of course, this is also for Audrey Tautou fans who'll lap up her look as Coco Chanel in those chic garbs.