Directed by Anne Fontaine and based upon the book by Edmonde Charles-Roux, Coco Before Chanel is a biographical tale of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel set a timeline which is just that, before she founded her empire. So for those who are more intrigued about the fashion world and the impact Chanel has on it, then this is not the movie you’re looking for, as it firmly dwells on Coco as a person, and her romantic dalliances with two men who played significant roles in her life, be it in support of her daily sustenance, or inspiring her love, beleiving in her, and providing the means for her desire to make a name for herself.
The film dedicated plenty of time in Coco’s awakening to the French high life of the time, since she became a voluntary insinuated herself as the mistress of rich playboy Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), who rescued her from poverty, and whose riches afforded to her access to the slacker lifestyles of the rich and famous. The audience gets reminded time and again of how stifling a woman’s place in high society was at the turn of the century, made worse by the restrictive clothing like corsets, frills, and lace from the neck right down to sweeping the floors. Coco’s disdain for constraint, combined with her penchant for freedom from social norms led to bold designs that did not conform, starting from her hats, which provided her some attention and notoriety.
As Coco Chanel, Audrey Tautou epitomizes that level of elegance, vulnerability with a rebellious streak to do things differently. Her petiteness and somewhat boyish cut figure probably suited the role really well as the initial designs by Coco were those inspired by menswear, though you only get glimpses of her design genius from short montages scattered throughout, and from some scenes which show her working at a tailor shop, but other than that you will gain very little from this bio-pic about the evolution of the fashion designer she was to become.
Coco is a woman who did, finally, fall in love, but again with a man to whom she was a mistress, not a wife–though he carried her about on his arm, and who saw her vast talent and her iron fist as the keys to being a great success. Sadly, he dies (but not before he has financed her beginning), and Chanel never really recovers.
Though it is not a movie about fashion but rather the making of a designer, the clothes here are the star of the show, from the fashions of societal norms in both directions of the rich-poor spectrum, to Coco Chanel’s designs with her menswear inspired pieces, and the glamour-chic pieces only making it through in a parting shot at the finale. The opulently designed clothes of that era stand in stark contrast to the Chanel pieces, which celebrates sheer beauty and elegance in their simplicity, and probably from there, stamping its mark on the fashion industry.