Coco Before Chanel: A Rags-For-Riches Tale

Coco Before Chanel6Delphine Chui in Spiked:

Anyone who’s been curious enough to delve into the life of Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel will tell you that to describe her life as appealing would be an understatement. So it would seem only natural for French cinema to want to capitalise on such a powerful life-story with, in this case, an Anne Fontaine-directed biopic.

Unfortunately, the result – Coco Before Chanel – is restricted to her pre-fame years and doesn’t really give the audience much more than a glimpse of the reason why her early life might be interesting in the first place: Chanel. Think Richard Branson before Virgin, with no mention of planes, trains, or music shops. But in French.

It’s 1893 when we’re first introduced to the young Coco, or, as she was then known, Gabrielle Chanel, an orphan who waits each Sunday for the return of her father. He never appears; cue daddy-issues and an embedded distrust in men. Instead, 10-year-old Gabrielle is left to look sullenly upon the faces of children who are whisked away to better lives, an expression which Audrey Tautou, playing Coco’s later incarnation, masters perfectly throughout the film.

Fifteen years on, Gabrielle and her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain) find themselves as cabaret performers. And it is here that Gabrielle is first transformed into ‘Coco’, a nickname given to her by the aristocrat Étienne Balsan. The best friend of Adrienne’s lover, Balsan (played effortlessly by Benoît Poelvoorde in a performance which should not be overshadowed by Tautou’s) is introduced to us with a prostitute in one arm and glass of champagne in the other. Humble beginnings, Coco says, do not bring one to the heights of society. For this reason, she lies about her past at every opportunity, making her character less easy to sympathise with and her calculating mind apparent. Men to Coco are dispensable human steps on the social ladder. She will not convert to love, she promises Balsan.