By Matt Brunson
COCO BEFORE CHANEL
DIRECTED BY Anne Fontaine
STARS Audrey Tautou, Benoit Poelvoorde
Like Young Mr. Lincoln, Butch and Sundance: The Early Years and the Che Guevara yarn The Motorcycle Diaries, Coco Before Chanel is one of those films that promises audiences a peek at the formative years of a historical figure, in that underreported stretch of life before fame (or, in some cases, infamy) came calling.
Audrey Tautou plays Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, who went on to become one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century. For now, Coco is spotted as a struggling showgirl who makes the acquaintance of the rich Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde) and soon becomes the in-house mistress at his large country estate.
Writer-director Anne Fontaine (co-scripting with Camille Fontaine) initially downplays Coco's sartorial impulses to such a large degree that the film never makes a strong connection between the opportunistic waif presented here and the international icon that would later rock the couture culture. Tautou's Coco thus never emerges completely from the shadows, while two key characters, her actress friend (Emmanuelle Devos) and her one true love (Alessandro Nivola), never break out of their sketchily drawn biopic stances. That leaves the complex Balsan equal parts sensitive gentleman and drunken boor as the most interesting person on display, and Poelvoorde delivers a strong performance in the role. Ultimately, he's the one who holds this knotty yarn in place.