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Movie Review

Coco Before Chanel

Coco Before Chanel
Alessandro Nivola and Audrey Tautou in "Coco Before Chanel"

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Rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking. 1 hour, 50 minutes.
Publication date: Oct. 9, 2009
Review by Peter Canavese
Released: (2009)

A picture is worth a thousand words, so they say, and one image in "Coco Before Chanel" effectively sums up the whole 110 minutes. The film's true-life heroine, fashion-designer-to-be Coco Chanel, lies in dead leaves, her head resting at the base of a green, mossy tree. Director Anne Fontaine sees Chanel as fertile imagination personified amid a dead landscape, a genius among intellectual plebeians.

Unfortunately, the film surrounding the image lacks the freshness and vitality Fontaine ascribes to her heroine; enter knowing nothing about Coco Chanel, and you'll exit wondering why you bothered to find out.

Those who already belong to the cult of Coco are clearly the target audience for "Coco Before Chanel," the only film bio officially approved by the house that Coco built. Adapted by Fontaine and her sister Camille (with an assist from Christopher Hampton) from Edmonde Charles-Roux's book "Chanel and Her World," the film goes back to the orphanage where Gabrielle Chanel was left by her father. Leaping ahead to her days as a Parisian seamstress and cabaret singer, the film depicts Gabrielle (Audrey Tautou) and her sister (Marie Gillain) singing the novelty ditty "Who's Seen Coco in the Trocadero?"

Shrewd Coco understands that she must hitch her star to a man to get anywhere in 1908 Paris. She sets her sights on playboy Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde). The film doesn't shy from Coco's shameless self-invention -- her willingness to exploit herself -- and Fontaine sees the later intrusion of a genuine romantic interest as enough drama to justify the film. Alessandro Nivola plays the presumable love of Chanel's life, "Boy" Capel, a suave exception among the buffoonish idle riche. In Poelvoorde's hands, Balsan proves the most captivating figure, a mostly good-humored sap who allows himself to be used.

Fontaine designs her soft account to precede the most interesting periods of Chanel's life, but the fatal flaw is in the lugubrious treatment. If Chanel's early years were really this boring, why bother with them?

The film lightly touches on what made Chanel important -- her groundbreaking liberation of women from constricting fashions -- but avoids her Nazi-collaborationist disgrace (skipping over it for a glimpse of Chanel in her fashionable prime). Tautou turns in a solid but sullen performance as Chanel, and though the film is prettily photographed, it's also a rather dull and unchallenging account of one woman's ambitious social climb in a man's world.