Let it be said that this reviewer is not bound by genres or a certain category of film (OK I am, but only because I can not afford to see everything released during the week), but I do like to at least try and experience films that, as a casual fan, I may not have originally thought to see for the sheer hell of it. For those in the world who are not familiar with the name, Coco Chanel is one of the definitive labels of the fashion world, which in all honesty I am not going to pretend I have the slightest knowledge about, because frankly I don't. That being said I am always a sucker for a biopic which combined with the absolutely wonderful Audrey Tautou (of Amelie and A Very Long Engagement fame) suddenly sparks my interest to learn more.
Concentrating (as the title suggests) on the personal life of the woman behind the label and not so much on the actual fashion and glitz of what is now associated with her, Coco Before Chanel embarks on an emotional and captivating journey into the rise of the woman Gabrielle Bonheur "Coco" Chanel, from humble childhood surroundings of spending several years in an orphanage of the Roman Catholic monastery of Aubazine, to her early adult years of working at a tailoring shop where she met and soon began an affair with the French playboy and millionaire Eitienne Balsan who lavished her with the beauties of "the rich life," to of course developing her talent as a fashion designer (specialising originally in hats) and eventually falling in love with Englishman Arthur "Boy" Capel. If you are a self confessed fashion historian or general Chanel enthusiast you should surely know where it goes from there. I, on the other hand, was a complete novice going into this movie and was genuinely moved by the performances on hand.
Audrey Tautou is something of a world cinema heavyweight in my opinion, give her any role and she will take it and absolutely hold your attention from beginning to end (the only saving grace of the dull and dire Da Vinci Code adaptation) and CBC was, not surprisingly, no different. She came across confident, vibrant, fiercely independent and not bound by general conventions in which high class women were associated with back in the early 20th century. With such qualities it may be easy to forget that there were indeed other people actually in this movie besides the captivating Tautou, and the two male leads Alessandro Nivola (who for such a remarkable performance and grasp of the French language is actually American born and bizarrely his previous films include blockbusters such as Face/Off and Jurassic Park III) as well as Benoît Poelvoorde gave an excellent account of themselves with some expressive and heart warming performances as the two lovers in Coco's life Arthur Capel and Eitienne Balsan respectively. Unfortunately though outside of the three leads the rest of the support cast, though perfectly adequate, fell a bit flat with their on screen presence making them somewhat forgettable.
Sitting in the director's chair and also helping pen the screenplay, I felt Anne Fontaine produced an elegant period drama with some stunning cinematography really capturing a picturesque image of one of the most beautiful countries in the world during the early 20th Century. That being said however, it was perhaps arguably too elegant and too desirable to the point where at times it felt a bit dull, never really taking the opportunity to delve into the grittiness and hardship Miss Chanel faced or the daunting up hill struggle as she unsuspectingly embarked on a crusade to liberate women in a social context. Having a quick glance at the back story behind the woman it seems that the screenplay is for the most part an accurate representation to the real life events of the title character. On top of the beautiful cinematography two time Academy Award nominee Alexandre Desplat composed a touching score which shone particularly in the more intimate romantic moments of the film.
Having no previous knowledge of the title character other than she created a, now infamous, highly expensive, perfume and clothing line I admittedly was totally captivated by this woman's story which has involved so many tragic and uplifting moments from her humble beginnings and early adult life leading up to her international stardom, and though from a critical point of view the film itself ticks all the right boxes I felt upon leaving the cinema that there was still far more to the story than the audience was shown, which is always my criticism when it comes to biopics, and obviously for the most part an unavoidable one. Audrey Tautou once again gave a brilliant performance that has been associated with her career countless times already; unfortunately it was everything else about this film that stopped it from being the essential viewing that it perhaps should have been. Though completely competent and held my interest for its near 2 hour running time, it never felt like I was witnessing something truly special in the league of such biopics as Walk The Line, Lawrence Of Arabia, Man On The Moon or even more recently (and from the same region) the touching tale of The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. An evocative, beautiful tale of the woman behind the name but it just (and only just) falls short of cinematic excellence.
See this if you liked...
Tautou's greatest acting achievement, the 2001 film, Amelie (which if you haven't seen already then shame on you!).
Coco Before Chanel is most likely not in your local multiplex right now...