Coco avant Chanel (2009), Dir. Anne Fontaine


Alessandro Nivola as the dashing Arthur Capel and a captivating Audrey Tatou as Coco Chanel


Rating: 6/10

I liked this film more until looking at the details of Chanel’s actual life I found out that she slept with a nazi during the war, and that she was a a bit of a liar making up her whole aspects of her upbringing, which is not represented here. Of course to portray a sympathetic heroine it would be hard to include this. But I think that they put too much emphasis on her as a pioneering woman, as Colin Mc Dowell points out in The Sunday Times , Poiret released women from the corset before Chanel and women like Lanvin got into the fashion business also long before Chanel built her empire.

It is then a bit of a hagiography and clearly not as good as the film it was trying to cash in on, La Vie En Rose, and it’s certainly not as dramatic as this film even though it does follow the same rags to riches formula; seeing her go from a strict catholic orphanage, to a singing career in a brothel  to a successful career. Nonetheless, it is entertaining and Audrey Tatou is always a delight to watch beautiful (especially when dressed in  a suit), luminous and engaging if a little gaunt (perhaps she slimmed down for the role?). It is fact her who makes the film, though Benoit Polvoorde (who was also excellent in Man Bites Dog) is also good as the wise-craking but immature Etienne Balsan. The man who, at first reluctantly, takes on Chanel as his mistress or as he prefers it to see it his ‘geisha.’

 Tatou does a good job of showing the distaste in which she views those highly trussed up and overdone women aound her, aswell as the disgust in which she views the rich and trivial society that Benoit keeps and which she has to entertain. Her individuality and determination to get somewhere are shown in her simple dress sense (cutting up men’s outfits to maker her own) and her resourcefulnness in staying in Balsan’s favour by learning to ride. And we see how she uses him like he uses her. There is also some witty exchanges such as when one actress client, Emanuelle (Emielliene D’alencon) who is wearing one of Chanel’s austere creations, complains that she can feel her “fat bits wiggling about” and asks if she can’t make it tighter. Chanel quickly replies “do you want to breathe?”

Her relationship with Balsan’s business associate the Englishman Arthur “Boy” Capel (Allessandro Nivola) is also nicely done. Though he does speak with a strange offputting mix of very English sounding English and very French sounding French (though this is probably quite realistic to be fair). ANd we see the admiration in which he views her independence. The imapct of his death on Chanel is also realistically and moving ly shown as Chanel becomes increasingly driven to her work.

I think, however, that I would’ve have liked to seen more about her childhood in the orphanage as this was really rushed through and you didn’t really get a sense of how harsh it was, bar the fact that they had to wear uniforms and that Chanel stood outside waiting for her dad (who had gone to America) to come. This was a period after all that really determind her character and distrust in men. The fact that she was a bisexual was also hardly engaged with (bar her saying she didn’t care about gender as she says: “it’s only skin.”) Which is a shame because it would  also have marked her out as someone different and interesting (well to me anyway) and there is a distinct lack of bisexual charcters in film as it is. Perhaps they didn’t want this to be an ‘issue’ and take away attention from her heterosexual  affairs. The ending with the fashion show was also a bit of an anti-climax as you just see a constrained view of Chanel on the staircase as models, who are far too thin and contemporary looking as Ann Billson points out, go past her.  

But overall it was rather nice to look at, and Tatou really is proving her worth.


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