Before Coco Chanel was Chanel, the cutting-edge founder of a brand synonymous with fashion, Coco was simply an icon-to-be sleeping her way to the top and defying stuffy cultural mores of the era all along the way. Eschewing those pesky (interesting) years of success, Coco Before Chanel opts instead for well-worn territory that Amelia recently trod through.
Audrey Tautou downplays her gamine charms to play Coco as a sullen seamstress weary of her drab orphanage upbringing. She sings and flings her way into the heart of millionaire Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) and, knowing a good thing when she sees it leaving town, invites herself to his estate and into the lap of luxury ' at least for as long as she can tolerate his boorish advances.
She rides horses astride as no woman should, she pulls off outfits that no other woman could and, soon enough, she's earning the attention of mademoiselles near and far, as well as the affection of English tycoon Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola), who buys her a new life where her fashions can bloom.
Director Anne Fontaine (The Girl From Monaco) makes sure the film as a whole is as handsomely mounted from a technical stance as they come. But the approach of the director-screenwriter and her co-writer, Camille Fontaine, to Chanel's early years is cut from the usual biopic (and soap opera) cloth. Perhaps the young woman wasn't famous at this point for a reason ' she didn't have a story worth telling yet.
Poelvoorde and Nivola deserve credit for not blowing emotions out of proportion ' every character understands when he's being used, for what (usually money), and by whom (usually Coco) ' but by this same factor Tautou winds up critically underserved. Her Coco is a pouty tomboy, a commodity, a trendsetter, a gold-digger, but never really a heroine of her own life. It again begs the question of why such a painstaking effort would be taken to re-create a life that could not seem less dramatic to the woman who's living it.
But the clothes, the houses, the horses are oh-so-pretty. There's no doubt that Coco Before Chanel revels in the glamour of it all, but one wonders if the woman behind the title wouldn't have tried harder to stand out in the crowd. Like she did, you know, after Coco.