Long before she became known as the figure with a cigarette perched between her lips as she made adjustments to the garment draped over her sewing mannequin, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was an orphaned child with little in the way of social status. These facts are laid forth in typical French cinematic elegance in Anne Fontaine's Coco Before Chanel.
As the title suggests, the latest biopic on the fashion femme fatale centers around the events leading up to the fame and fortune she achieved with the Chanel empire. With a somewhat slow-paced beginning, we learn of Chanel's naive attachment to the idea that her father will return to collect her and her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain), from the orphanage they've been relegated to, tirelessly waiting every Sunday during visiting hours for him to come. It is possibly the consistent disappointment of her father's abandonment that turns the young Coco into a somewhat hardened, unreachable chanteuse in an upscale cabaret where every other girl except her and Adrienne seems to offer extra "services" with their singing.
It is here that she meets her soon to be unwitting patron, Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), a wealthy friend of the baron Adrienne has fallen in love with. Using her feminine wiles (a.k.a. fucking his brains out), Coco gets Balsan to get her an audition at a more exclusive nightclub. Unfortunately, Coco does not have the highbrow panache necessary to land the job, coming across as tacky and taudry more than anything else. To add to her mounting troubles, Adrienne decides to quit the act in order to become better suited as the baron marrying type, leaving Coco to fend for herself in the entertainment sector, a required evil to supplement her low-paying day job as a seamstress.
Figuring her sister isn't the only one who can finagle her way into an aristocrat's heart, she travels to the outskirts of Paris to find Balsan again. Although he keeps her hidden at first, her stubbornness and offbeat social grace permits her to enter his world with little difficulty. It is at this point in the film that the story starts to become more interesting as Chanel is painted as a complex character with the ennui of a woman dissatisfied by what current societal and fashion maxims have to offer. Along the way, she meets her first and, from what the movie portrays, only great love, Arthur "Boy" Capel, an Englishman who runs in the same social circle as Balsan.
Until now, Coco Avant Chanel is not rife with nearly as many cliches as one would expect, but quickly shifts in a manner that strongly resembles the plot and fatalist style of another biopic based on a tragic French woman's life, that of Edith Piaf as played by Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose. While writer-director Anne Fontaine cannot help that there are undoubted parallels between the lives of these two women, it just seemed all too familiar when "Boy" ends up dying in a car crash, just as Edith's boyfriend Marcel dies in a plane crash. The underlying message seems to be: Don't ever be a man's mistress if his preferred method of transportation isn't walking on foot.
Chanel's storied life could not possibly fit into a single two hour film and is not likely to be the last rendering we see in the theater, but Fontaine dexterously covers quite a bit of ground, deriving heavily from biographer Edmonde Charles-Roux's book Chanel and Her World. More than any other element though, Audrey Tautou's moody, determined portrayal of the illustrious designer is what makes Coco Avant Chanel compelling and watchable.