Coco Before Chanel: Audrey Tautou Puts Career Before Love

Anne Fontaine's biopic gives us Belle-Époque Coco, opening in 1893 with a grim scene of the 10-year-old waif and her sister unceremoniously dumped at an orphanage, and ending around World War I, a few years before the Chanel empire is launched. The Coco of Fontaine's project, adequately performed by Audrey Tautou, dramatizes Chanel's most fundamental contradiction: The proud, mythomaniac peasant who would liberate women from suffocating corsets, pounds of extra material, and hats that looked liked "meringues" was able to do so by lying in the beds of rich men, namely millionaire racehorse owner Etienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) and English industrialist Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola). "Coco Chanel never married," reads the first of the closing intertitles, which the film seems to honor as the designer's most significant accomplishment. Aiming to be a tale of self-creation, Fontaine's film more often plays as a dull romance, Chanel's role as mistress somehow worthy of noble celebration. Coco concludes with an anachronistic coda: An older Coco sits on the famous steps of her couture house as contemporary models march past her, wearing Chanel's Greatest Hits Through the Decades. The valedictory moment feels completely unearned in a film so strenuously devoted to the years before its subject's fame.

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