Although in form and intent very much Biopic 101, Coco Avant Chanel, directed Anne Fontaine, maker of the interesting if not finally compelling Nathalie…, tries here to imbue the genre with a kind of gossamer elegance, a deceptively frivolous dream-sheen in which an older world gives birth to a newer one through small acts of designer rebellion. Essaying a fin de siecle atmosphere in muted but beautifully defined lithographic colours, Fontaine tries to find the Jean Renoir movie in the story of how Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (Audrey Tautou) found her path to fame and infamy.
Having survived being dumped with her sister Adrienne in an orphanage, she becomes with her a second-rate tavern singer, catching the eye of wealthy, aimless gadabout soldier and heir Etienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), whilst Adrienne (Marie Gallain) becomes the mistress of a baron. Coco forces her way into Balsan's life as a live-in mistress in his colossal country pad and contends with the ways of a rich, idle, and psycho-sexually contorted class: after at first encouraging her to hide away from his ritzy guests, Balsan doesn’t know how to react when she contrives to crash into his riding luncheons and swank affairs in her hastily improvised costumes, often culled from items in his wardrobe, bending genders and propriety’s presumptions with her ingrained distaste for the afunctional.
Coco, and Fontaine, cast an acerbic but rather sympathetic eye on this world, full of emotionally bereft people with too much money, playing desperately naughty games and striking convenient arrangements, both freer and more warped than anything
Coco has encountered before, a sphere ready to reward any entertaining guttersnipe who can bring a shock of the new without scaring anyone. Coco’s sexually ambiguous look, and self-pronounced bedroom ambiguities, is all a tease that works wonders for her, as she makes eyes with popular comedic actress and former Baslan mistress Émilienne (Emmanuelle Devos) and then makes her hats, which prove colossally popular in their select circle. But the big romance on show here, a la La Vie en Rose, is the tragic one with a married man, here Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel (Alessandro Nivola), an English entrepreneur and debonair dude who sweeps Coco off her feet and finally bankrolls her first business, designing hats, and, in spite of his marrying a super-rich heiress, they live in blissful cohabitation after a regulation amount of soul-searching, before he dies in a car accident.
The low refrain of bedroom farce and the high of tragic victory both echo in
Coco’s experience, as presented here. The film presents her squarely as feminist heroine working with what few parts and stages she has to work with, resisting being controlled even as she submits to a leeching, subordinate role as mistress, her force of character backed up by beauty, her main weapon, her talents at first a mere tool before proving an end. Fontaine’s keen enough to show how small life lessons result in aspects of Chanel’s design philosophy, perhaps most amusingly noted when Boy, stripping her off for another tryst, remarks with pleasure: “Undressing you is always so easy!” The carefully controlled employment of settings, barely taking in any of the period world beyond either the sordid locales Coco and Adrienne haunt at the outset, Baslan's estate, and, briefly, Deauville, might be the product of budget restrictions, but also helps Fontaine's conveyed sense of hermetic, mutually exclusive spheres of existence, and the beatific mood of non-sentimental nostalgia. She also does a surprisingly good job of divorcing romantic sexual passion from a more prosaic kind.
The second half of the film is of course a tale of dovetailing purposes, but it’s also a finely portrayed little emotional minuet where Boy, Balsan, and Coco dance around the hazy middle-ground where finite personal understandings are no less binding and corrosive than socially officious ones. Balsan’s simmering jealousy over Coco and Boy’s genuine amour, rather than the rather boyish, oddly dependent affection he has for her, and Coco’s discomfort at her place in the scheme of things, especially when called upon to lose the niche of dignity she’s carved for herself when Balsan insists she sings her saucy tavern song for his guests, are the kinds of tension that manifest in some very well-acted scenes.
It’s not, of course, The Rules of the Game, lacking anything like that film’s teeming detail and dexterity, and the soap opera of the second half as Coco and Boy find a brief bliss we all know can’t last gets a bit stale. But the fact that Fontaine cuts out any “the fabulous story of!” hype whilst maintaining a coolly romantic take on a situation one could be very cynical about, looking for the hope and ardour in its main characters and not just the flaws. The narrative is also intelligent enough to absorb and transmit a sense of a changing world, one that Coco’s sense of style presages, a time where her dresses seem far more appropriate for (and stylistically matched to) a world already busy with motor cars than the feather-and-floral frou-frou of the other Edwardian women, and the louche affectations of the wealthy and their chosen pets come across less as liberated than as the recourses of the terminally feckless.
Fontaine is aware of what surfaces mean in this world, and ours, communicated through styles and signifiers of class and gender, and brings home then the subtle impact of
Coco’s war on those signifiers as a modernist of clothing. The film steers absolutely clear of any presaging of her later controversies, and by the end, as a parade of her creations passes by her in a dazzling flow, like the ethereal products of a magician’s conjuring, she’s been emptied, in any event, of any immediate human desire by disaster, now living only for labour, the substitution of form for feeling now her life. And so Fontaine’s Coco Chanel origin story, funnily enough, comes across like the feminine riposte to the Daniel Craig making-of-Bond version of Casino Royale. Tautou is admirably free from any gamine Amélie-isms and is entirely confident, and Nivola possesses a kind of grave, fixated charm, but laurels go to Poelvoorde, who embodies his role with a perfect mix of struggling impulses, his aging, unhandsome but likable façade not concealing his still juvenile wants and fears. The whole affair could be called a knock-off of La Vie en Rose, and invites that dreaded epithet of being a prime contemporary example of the "cinema of quality", but truth be told I liked it.