Even if you're not into fashion, the brand name Chanel is immediately recognizable. It's been around for a long time, and there's a certain amount of exaltation just uttering the two syllables. But the beginning of this impressive empire was not swift, and Anne Fontaine's film takes us on the emotional coming-of-age ride that turned Gabrielle Chanel (Audrey Tautou) into the inimitable "Coco." Article continues below
The humble beginnings of being dropped at an orphanage with her sister Adrienne (Marie Gillain) will pass you by if you blink. We then quickly move to 15 years later when the siblings are performing seamstress duties by day and singing in saloons for change by night. Once Coco -- already nicknamed that for a song that she sings -- meets and decides she can use the connections of Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), the story settles into struggle of Coco pushing the unspoken societal boundaries that being a female without family connections creates.
Though the timing of Coco's progression is severely uneven -- her youth takes less than ten minutes while what feels like an interminable hour is spent at Balsan's estate -- Fontaine's script deftly handles her character's growth and Tautou is thoroughly engaging to follow. It's often painful to watch when someone tries something that fails because it is often surrounded by high drama. In this case, instead of concentrating on the difficult circumstances, we're led through the sequences through Coco's point of view. This is a woman who makes quick decisions to switch focus when she doesn't get what she wants, so we don't get the opportunity to sit and stew about the iniquities of life.
That said, the time spent on Coco slowly coming to terms with the reality that her main talents are her eyes and hands stretches some patience. Once this acceptance takes place, she instantly becomes a local star, and the leap is jarring. While her success is partially due to being introduced to "society" by her lovers, both Balsan and English businessman Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola), it would have been nice to see some of the actual transition after all the buildup.
The non-professional subplot of Coco's story are the love interests of Balsan and Capel, the interactions with whom are quietly used to reveal Coco's loss of romantic naïveté about the function of marriage. Again, thankfully, not too much weight is placed on what Coco can't have, instead she adapts to it all as a way to have satiation without losing her freedom.
Regardless of its flaws, Coco Before Chanel is a solidly-made glimpse into an icon whose presence is still felt today. It's fun to watch Coco bend the rules while she figures out what to do. It's endearing to see her accomplishments despite all that she's not supposed to have access to due to the age, background, and gender. It's heartening to see the story of a driven woman who doesn't allow herself to be a victim, and whom we get to respect despite her inability to act like everyone else.