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Audrey Tautou, middle, as Coco Chanel: She’s a consistent delight to watch as her dark, penetrating eyes constantly scan the surface of things, observing all and missing nothing.

Chantal Thomine-Desmazures/Haut et Court - Cine@ - Warnerbros. Ent. France et France 2 Cinema

3 out of 4 stars


Coco Avant Chanel

  • Directed by Anne Fontaine
  • Written by Anne Fontaine and Camille Fontaine
  • Starring Audrey Tautou, Benoît Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola
  • Classification: PG

In every celebrity biopic, the first act is always the best. That's because its very predictability, the inevitable rise from obscurity to the cusp of fame, is keenly satisfying to the anonymous rest of us, who like to be reassured that folks with unique talents - and don't we all feel unique - do not go unnoticed. So to find the appeal of Coco Avant Chanel , look no further than the title. This is the story of the diminutive Coco before she became the fashionable Chanel - in other words, the whole movie is one long first act.

Of course, just as obvious as the appeal is the attendant problem: Without acts 2 and 3, the bio is transparently light on plot. Luckily, it's heavy on performance. The cast is superb, not least Audrey Tautou in the lead role. She's a consistent delight to watch for the simple reason that she herself is so consistently watchful. Her dark, penetrating eyes are constantly scanning the surface of things, observing all and missing nothing. And despite the film's attempts to do more - to be a love story or the chronicle of an early feminist - it's really only the surface that matters here. Which doesn't mean this is a superficial picture. Quite the opposite. A future fashionista is well-advised to deal solely in appearances; after all, our appearance is her stock-in-trade - gauging it, critiquing it, transforming it.

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To that end, director Anne Fontaine is at her strongest when she's aiding and abetting Chanel's all-seeing gaze. Like the opening scene in a rural French orphanage, 1893, when her camera lingers on the black and white habits of the nuns who run the place. There, with her mother dead and her dad absconded, little Coco had ample time to learn that simple, clean, loose-fitting lines can pack an authoritative wallop.

Flash forward 15 years to Moulin, where our heroine is dividing her time between singing in a cabaret at night and toiling as a seamstress by day. Her voice is weak, her hands are gifted, but she doesn't know that yet. Clearly, though, the stay at the orphanage has left its emotional scars, a fact that the bar's pick-up artists discover to their dismay. Quick-witted and sharp-tongued, she's apparently immune to amour: "The only interesting thing about love is making love - too bad you need a guy for that." These early scenes set the ambiguous tone for Tautou's portrayal - vulnerability blended with assertiveness, a sadly delicate soul inside a brazenly aggressive manner - and she's note perfect throughout.

Happily for the sake of the minimal plot, Coco is not immune to affairs of the pocketbook, allowing herself to be seduced by the aging Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), then following him to his lavish chateau on the outskirts of Paris, where both she and the film linger. Wisely so. Since Balsan is quite the party person, the house is fertile ground for appearances, with high-bred ladies and demimonde actresses and assorted hangers-on gathered in colourful abundance. Studying the peacocks in their finery - the binding corsets, the flowing lace, the feathered hats, the dripping jewellery - those evaluating eyes begin to master the art of less is more. Soon, the country girl is inventing urban chic, freeing herself to ride in men's britches and to lounge in their silk pyjamas, stealing from the lowly fisherman that famous blue-striped shirt and from those distant nuns that iconic black dress, adorned only with a simple rosary of white pearls.

It's fun to see Coco channelling her way to Chanel. Fun too, even poignant at times, is Balsan's own metamorphosis from an acquisitive lothario to a kind-hearted friend - Poelvoorde picks his way through that journey with subtlety and conviction.

Far less convincing is Coco's doomed tryst with the Britisher Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola), a deep entanglement whose tragic climax is ponderously foreshadowed, openly revealed and then redundantly revisited, although not before Capel is heard to say to his beloved: "An excellent future awaits you." Yes, Fontaine sometimes tends toward the overembroidered and the unnecessarily accessorized, prompting the irony to scream out: "Why aren't you practising what your star is preaching?"

Mainly, though, the two are in accord, eventually making their way to Paris and obscurity's end. No need for the second act but, some day, I'd like to see the third. The legend lived a long life, to 87, and Coco Après Chanel would have to strip away the appearances she so fashionably kept up. But that's a whole other movie.

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About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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