* * *
An austere interpretation of a glamour icon
Her name may be synonymous with fashion and glamour but make no mistake, this is not a fashion film. And it's not particularly glamorous.
The title translates as
Coco before Chanel
and that's exactly what this story is - the early years of the fashion icon's life. It begins with her father abandoning her at an orphanage when she was 12 and follows her as she works her way up from being a common cabaret singer to a woman of means, by way of various wealthy men.
Tautou's performance as the prickly upstart is excellent, if not terribly likeable. Determined to rise above her station, Chanel calculates and manipulates to get what she wants, while remaining staunchly proud and looking down on the rich, frivolous women around her.
Chanel's unconventional charm may have won over her patrons, but Tautou's interpretation struggles to win over the audience. Rather, her steely determination rubs off on you, leaving you strangely untouched by the central tragedy of the film.
Director Anne Fontaine wanted to focus on just one part of Chanel's life and much of the film is spent in a French chateau, where a love triangle slowly forms between the young Chanel and two men - Etienne Balsan (Poelvoorde) and Arthur Capel (Nivola).
Much like Chanel's signature designs, the film is precise, tailored and stylish - but conservative. Things are hinted at but rarely spelt out. The film seeks to explain how Chanel became the mogul she did and reveals various, subtle threads that shaped her life. But the whole thing feels like it is laying the foundations for the film you really want to see - the one about a glamorous designer conquering the world.
Audrey Tautou, Benoit Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola
PG (coarse language)