Coco Before Chanel (Sony Classics/Warner Bros.; 110 minutes; PG-13: widescreen; 2009). The later years of French fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971) have previously been adapted for the stage and small screen as star vehicles for the respective likes of Katharine Hepburn (in a 1969 Tony-nominated musical penned by Andre Previn and Alan Jay Lerner) and Shirley MacLaine (in a 2008 Lifetime TV-movie). Director Anne Fontaine’s posh biopic, as the title indicates, offers a chronicle of the young woman’s literal salad years, from being dumped as a kid by her dad at an orphanage to her early adulthood as a struggling seamstress and cabaret entertainer. It’s a showcase, too, for Audrey Tautou, who channels Chanel’s artistic muse into an entertaining study of flinty feminism.
The first half charts Chanel’s turn-of-the-20th-century relationship with boorish aristocrat Etienne Balsan (a scene-stealing Benoit Poelvoorde), whose influential connections encourage the ambitious Coco to become his kept woman, albeit with fringe benefits like getting to lodge in a roomy castle and learning the skills of horsemanship. As Fontaine always points out, it is Chanel’s choice to become Balsan’s willing mistress, which also makes her vulnerable to actually falling in love, which inevitably occurs when hunky British coal businessman Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola) drops by the mansion and makes romantic overtures. And when complications arise, even Coco must admit that “I always knew I’d be no one’s wife. It’s just that sometimes. . . I forget.”
Tautou doesn’t coast on the waifish charms she brought to her stateside art-house hit Amelie (2001), as she adopts pursed facial expressions throughout the movie’s first hour to convey both Chanel’s determination and her unhappiness. It’s only when Chanel sparks with Boy in the second half that Tautou displays the warm, smiling personality that makes audiences swoon.
Director Fontaine takes a page from Chanel’s stylebook to keep her film elegantly simple, with a minimum of fussy look-at-me camerawork and a maximum of straightforward storytelling that prevents the material from tipping into a soap-operatic abyss. (The obvious take-away metaphor regarding Chanel’s rejection of corsets, naturally, is personal freedom.) And the film’s most unexpected surprise comes from Poelvoorde, who played the charming serial killer from the 1992 mockumentary Man Bites Dog, and here strikes a bittersweet chord when his likable benefactor Balsan finally realizes the deep love he has for his caged bird.
An Oscar nominee for Best Costume Design, Coco Before Chanel will be issued as a DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on Tuesday, Feb. 16. The disc is letterboxed at 2.35:1 ratio and features a subtitled commentary track by Fontaine, accompanied by co-producer Philippe Carcasonne and editor Luc Barnier, as well as more extras than is usual from a DVD release of art-house product. (Some of the vignettes were created by Warner Brothers, which financed this French production.) The making-of documentary, for instance, runs a considerable 46 minutes and provides plenty of behind-the-scenes glimpses into the moviemaking process, such as the effects work that creates a teeming backdrop of costumed extras for a polo party.
Other special features include “The Meeting,” 18 minutes of the actors expounding upon their characters with some de rigueur puffery (Fontaine declares, “She invented the modern woman.”), and the Sony-produced “Walking the Red Carpet: From Los Angeles to New York,” with cast members posing for photo ops, Sony Classics co-president Michael Barker greeting moviegoers and Nivoli’s amusing comment on his Boy Capel: “There’s nothing that a good Freddy Mercury mustache can’t do to give a guy a little class.” A two-minute trailer for Coco Before Chanel, plus coming attractions for eight other Sony Classics releases, round out the package. By the way, the company will soon release to theaters director Jan Kounen’s Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, an unrelated production with Anna Mougalis and Casino Royale’s Mads Mikkelsen tackling the title roles.