At the end of the day, “Coco Avant Chanel” doesn’t do justice to one of the world’s most iconic fashion figures. It leaves you wanting to see more of the avant (before) and the après (after) of Chanel’s rise to fame.
As suggested by the title, the film focuses on Coco’s early years, before she hit it big in the global fashion scene. We first meet her as an orphaned girl, with no sight of the glamour and celebrity endorsements that are associated with today’s Chanel brand. The movie then fast-forwards to a twenty-something Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (played by “Amelie’s” Audrey Tautou) who’s involved in a French cabaret act with her sister (Marie Gillain). She dreams of becoming the next theatre starlet of Paris, but that dream slowly slips from her hands.
One older, wealthy man (Etienne Balsan played by Benoît Poelvoorde), promises to try and get her an audition and while she doesn’t make the cut, Gabrielle continues a brief fling with him. She comes off as opportunistic when she arrives at Etienne’s mansion unannounced and stays there as she decides what to do with her life.
Is designing for women in theatre enough to satisfy her dream of becoming one? Well that answer we already know, but most people don’t know how she got to that level and that’s what this film is about.
Don’t be fooled, “Coco Avant Chanel” isn’t a biopic. It focuses more on a snapshot of Chanel’s life instead of sticking strictly to her unique sense of style and design, making the film enjoyable for everyone as opposed to just fashion lovers.
The idea that a once mistress with nowhere to drop dead became one of fashion’s household names is truly astounding. The movie will definitely make you feel for Coco’s harsh upbringing but not necessarily with her character in the film. As usual, Tautou delivers a strong performance, but her Coco comes off as stern and at times narcissistic.
It’s clear that director Anne Fontaine was more interested in Coco’s youth and while her story is engaging, it would have been nice to see more of Coco the designer. In honesty, this film isn’t bad. With France as its backdrop, the movie is visually attractive and at times stunning. But for an unconventional woman who revolutionized the industry and proved she could make it despite all odds, it sure is conventional.