There have been several attempts to dramatize the life of fashion icon Coco Chanel, leaving "Coco Before Chanel" no choice but to travel deeper into history, not only to discover how she became a wizard of fabric, but to witness her struggles with abandonment and heartache. It's juicy fodder for a period soap opera, but "Before" doesn't squeeze hard enough. It's a gorgeous picture, but one that rarely demands attention.
Abandoned by her father at a young age, Coco Chanel (Audrey Tautou) was raised in an orphanage, forced into a life of poverty and servitude. Working as a seamstress during the day and a bar performer at night, Coco catches the eye of Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), a wealthy playboy who takes in the young women in her time of need. Becoming Etienne's mistress, Coco finds the fashion of the elite too stuffy and ornamented, parading around her own minimalist style of masculine apparel and intricate headwear. Building a reputation as a miracle clothing designer, Coco finds her heart stolen by industrialist Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola), enraging Balsan and threatening her newfound fashion opportunities.
Much of "Coco Before Chanel" plays like a Lifetime movie, albeit one with a generous budget and the luminescent Tautou in the lead role. It's melodrama, faintly warmed by director Anne Fontaine ("The Girl from Monaco"), who steps too carefully to avoid pulling "Before" into a standard bio-pic of career ups and downs. Certainly the fashion aspects of Chanel's life are captured here, from her early fixation on nun garb to the celebration of her hat designs, which paved the way for the young designer to capitalize on her unique viewpoint, intriguing the elite with her androgynous (and refreshingly comfortable) wear. Pulling away from the agonizing chains of corsets and baubles, Chanel revolutionized clothes, and her story is an amazing collection of triumphs, lies, and tragedy. However, "Before" is not here for that.
Focusing on Chanel's early affairs and her effort to overcome the cruel brand of poverty, "Before" surveys the designer's discontent and silent hunger to make herself known to the world. Played with steely-eyed surveillance by Tautou, the film benefits from the unshakable performance, using the concentration to discover Chanel's isolation and restlessness, with her leap into Capel's arms the shot of inspiration and compassion she needed for the next stage of her life. Sadly, Fontaine never captures the emotional turmoil with severity, instead crafting a soap opera that lacks even the slightest hint of usable conflict. This is Chanel's war with men, but it's executed bloodlessly, moping down avenues of the obvious with little sexual spark.
Considering the potential of the subject, "Coco Before Chanel" is a static, familiar romantic tragedy. It lacks electricity, and while stunningly produced and smartly acted, the stillness of the film is often insufferable.
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