Despite being a biopic on one of the fashion world’s most illustrious figures, it is emancipation, not haute couture, that is the running theme throughout Coco Before Chanel. True to its title, this Anne Fontaine-directed film presents an insightful look into the formative years of the legendary couturier Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel.
Abandoned by her father and cloistered in a convent where she first studied the tailoring trade that would lead to her destiny, the young Coco grows up surly and cynical of love.
We then fast-forward to a grown-up Coco, who, with her sister, juggles a day job as a seamstress and moonlights as a showgirl to survive. While her sister’s exit plan out of poverty involves marriage to a wealthy count, Coco herself meanders through a mix of lucky breaks, alliances (not to mention manipulative dalliances), talent and tragedy to break out of obscurity and come into her own.
French superstar Audrey Tautou is magnificent in the lead role — she has a disarming woman-child quality that captures both the frustration of a young girl trying to find her place in an era that had no room for her free spirit, and the steely resolve of a woman determined to make her mark in the world, one way or another. Her intense screen presence spurs the movie on, especially during moments where the movie slows to a plod. Fontaine alludes to the fashion genius in Coco with a light, subtle hand such that you forget that this is a woman on her way to building the Chanel empire, but more so a woman stacked against the odds, trying to make do with what she has in her two hands.
On the flip side, the stark predictability of the last 15 minutes ruins the credibility Fontaine painstakingly built up in the past one hour plus. The closing scene of Coco perched at the cusp of success, although beautifully rendered, felt like a rush to end the whole outing on an audience-friendly note. Bearing in mind that this was story about a real person, the conclusion felt overly simplistic.
Thus, inspiring as it is, the film falls somewhat short in terms of insight and impact. But as a social commentary on the gender inequalities Coco overcame (all the things the Chanel-clad woman of today would consider travesties) on her rise to the top, it is an entertaining enough watch.