Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel was the only person in the field of fashion to be listed amongst Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century. This remarkable background should then have been the underpinning of a great biopic, particularly with Audrey ‘Amelie’ Tautou cast as Chanel. ‘Coco Avant Chanel’ however left me largely cold and unsatisfied, acting more as a snapshot of Chanel’s life than a biopic or even a period drama. Is this the story of how she became a magnate decades ahead of her time? Just what are we supposed to learn or take away from this about Chanel which we didn’t know going in? Writer/director Anne Fontaine never seems quite to know – she gets a commanding performance by Tautou, all pouty, angry and proud, but despite having an interesting dynamic to play with (how Chanel’s empire was built with the support of successive lovers Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) and Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel (Alessandro Nivola)), she draws very little from it. The film is interesting, but not remotely engaging.
There are intriguing lesbian undertones, and Fontaine paints a fascinating picture of early twentieth century French life, but it feels compromised when it doesn’t need to be – there are chances to be taken which it avoids. It’s sure shot well, but it’s also badly padded – nearly 2 hours to show a great deal without actually saying anything specific about the title character. You long for her happiness with the doomed Capel, or at least for his death to have an impact on her life, but Fontaine and Tautou keep Chanel enigmatic and largely unknowable. With less self-indulgence by Fontaine as director (with no focus, the pacing particularly in the first third is often turgid) and something to say by her as writer, this could have been much more. 6/10