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Coco Before Chanel
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Coco Before Chanel – Review

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

As a young girl, in the late 1800s, she’s dumped at an orphanage with her sister – a decade later, she’s working as a seamstress by day and performing a cabaret act with her sister by night.
Their signature song, Coco, gives Gabrielle Chanel (Tautou) the nickname that will live with her through history.
It’s performing this song in a night-club in southern France where she catches the eye of soldier and wealthy businessman Étienne Balsan (Poelvoorde), who takes her under his wing, tries to get her a better gig – and ends up putting her up in one of the many spare rooms at his sweeping country estate near Paris.
Although Étienne tries to keep Coco hidden, she manages to sneak out from time to time and mix with his upper-class friends, including some of the great celebrities of the day.
Her insistence on outstaying her welcome – and her refusal to keep hidden – aren’t the only ways she breaks with the woman’s traditional role of looking pretty and doing what she’s told; she starts ripping all the frills off her dresses, shunning any colour and fashioning trouser-suits out of clothes borrowed from men.
Her sartorial eccentricities make Coco all the more intriguing to all those around her. The older man is entranced by the gamine beauty, who doesn’t seem to be interested in anything more from him than his generous hospitality and the attention of his English business associate, “Boy” (Nivola).
Before long, her hats find favour with an actress at the top of Étienne’s social tree, and Boy offers her a loan to set up in business, selling her designs to the high society Parisians.
And the rest – as they say – is history.

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

Visually – and stylistically – this is an impressive piece of work. The sets, the props, the cars and of course the elegant costumes are, suitably, beyond reproach. There’s a fantastic sense of period – through production design, cinematography and performance.
But Coco herself didn’t really come across as a particularly engaging character. She was largely miserable, humourless, and cheekily selfish – and her life didn’t seem to be nudged forward by any particularly engaging moments – it was more by disjounted happenstance than active determination that her undoubted talent rose to the surface and shone.
As such, there was little cinematic drama to the unfolding of her story – little true sense – apart from a couple of people liking her hats – of how she really went from a small-time cabaret singer to one of the most influential fashion moguls of all time.
If this film is to be believed, the lessons to be learned for anyone who wants to follow in her footsteps are be rude, take advantage of the kindness of strangers, wilfully disobey what people ask you to do, suffer a loss which makes you determined to work hard (what biopic doesn’t have this?!) – oh, and be good at something that makes you stand out from the crowd.
OK, so I’d actually agree with the last one, but the other elements don’t really make her a sympathetic character that you’d particularly want to root for, and while you accept that her eventual success is deserved, you don’t really feel that she’s done her time and worked her way to the top.
This, perhaps, comes down to the age-hold biopic problem of deciding which period of someone’s life to cover. Bracketing this between a brief childhood visit to an orphanage and a fully-fledged fashion show coda stretch what could be a measured journey through a few formative years into an attempt to paint her whole life with one brush.

Opens nationwide 31st July 2009

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