The drab stateliness of Coco Before Chanel is in keeping with the un-ornate threads popularized by its subject, fashion mogul Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (Audrey Tautou). Yet if Anne Fontaine’s early-years portrait employs a stripped-down aesthetic in tune with the couturier’s signature garb, her bland, straightforward treatment nonetheless lacks the daring that typified Coco and her style.
Fontaine’s film, based on Edmonde Charles-Roux’s book L’Irréguliere, is a Motorcycle Diaries for the clothing icon, tracing Coco’s formative years right up until the point of her mega-success as an independent designer—and thus sidestepping her eventual Nazi romance. This period finds Coco and her sister (Marie Gillain) singing in boozy cabarets for men interested in the company of working girls, with both women dreaming of on-stage stardom until love takes sis away and Coco, after losing her job thanks to her fiery attitude, decides to take up residence with profligate duke Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde). There, she squabbles with the paternalistic Balsan and falls for a British gentleman nicknamed “Boy” (Alessandro Nivola), who along with a wealthy high-society friend (Emmanuelle Devos), recognizes and encourages Coco’s idiosyncratic outlook on life, which is embodied by feather-free hats and manly pants outfits wholly removed from the ostentatious fashion of the day.
Fontaine dramatizes Coco’s struggles respectfully if mundanely, crafting believable period detail for her procession of key-life-moment scenes, all of which employ serviceable but far from groundbreaking psychologizing. If unable to get fully under her character’s skin, Tautou is still surprisingly adept at flashing steely, ball-busting resolve designed to mask a more sensitive, vulnerable heart. Once Boy rolls into Balsan’s estate to sweep Coco off her feet, however, Coco Before Chanel increasingly feels like a bio cut from a clichéd cloth, its secrets and tragedies part of a narrative that, regardless of its real-life origins, feels shopworn. As such, it’s far too easy to foresee that Boy is not only hiding something from his new love but destined for an unhappy fate, and that these facts will transform the couple’s doomed romance into both the defining joy and sorrow of Coco’s life, which in Fontaine’s reverent yet unadventurous hands comes off less like a saga lived than one scripted.