Style Before Substance 

cocobeforechanel.jpg

Coco Before Chanel
Directed by Anne Fontaine

Like the fashions whose fall from favor it charts, Coco Before Chanel is beautiful, meticulous, a little precious and, underneath it all, rather lifeless. No period detail is spared in portraying Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel's (Audrey Tautou) growth from a stubborn orphan to a stubborn seamstress and, eventually, the first stubbornly modern fashion designer. The art direction, sets and costuming are impeccable, Tautou brings sufficient embittered stiffness to the title role and director Anne Fontaine shows moments of flair—though she can't muster the wonderful humor, charm and fluidity she did in last year's The Girl From Monaco. Adapting Edmonde Charles-Roux's L'irreguliere, Fontaine and her sister Claire adhere to a frustratingly conventional narrative arc, even given the binding constraints of the biopic genre.

Fontaine opens with origin myths: 10-year-old Gabrielle (Lisa Cohen) is abandoned wordlessly by her father at the front door of an orphanage. Fifteen years later, she and her close-in-age aunt Gabrielle (Marie Gillain) are earning enough of a living to pay for the room they share by working by day as seamstresses and singing at a cabaret at night. Their daytime work clothes are austere and clean, their evening uniforms more frilly and bawdy. Meeting Gabrielle after a cabaret performance, millionaire socialite Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) urges her to adopt the name Coco from one of her songs, which she does as if accepting a bet, rather than as flirtatious banter. Fontaine and Tautou's Coco is a hardnosed and hardworking loner with abandonment issues, equally adept at performing femininity and sheathing it in new forms.

The plodding narrative that leads Coco through personal hardships—her on-again, off-again relationship to the playboy and racehorse breeder Balsan, an affair with one of his British colleagues (Alessandro Nivola), the gradual arousal of her interest in fashion-proves less compelling than the shifting socio—cultural field Fontaine uses for a backdrop. Coco becomes, then, a prototypical businesswoman competing in a coded-male commercial world and fashion industry. She's also an early developer of Modern aesthetics, urging the women who attend Balsan's frat-ish parties to remove the ridiculous flowers, corsets and extraneous ornaments that have their dresses and hats looking like wedding cakes. In turn, she favors a more naturalistic and honest portrayal of femininity, form and the female body. Fontaine doesn't go so far as to posit Coco as an avant-garde artist or a feminist crusader, but she's very adept at conjuring the cultural milieu in which her designs seemed utterly revolutionary.

As Coco, Tautou spends much of her time pouting and scowling, which makes her moments of extreme joy, despair and enthusiasm especially moving. It's nothing like Marion Cotillard's spectacular turn in La vie en rose, or Yolande Moreau's bumbly brilliance in Séraphine, but it's nice to see Tautou acting again after her role in The Da Vinci Code was reduced to little more than that of a prop. Fontaine, meanwhile, favors visual storytelling, using virtually speechless set pieces, over-the-shoulder, tracking and point of view shots to convey some of the film's strongest moments—cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne's always outstanding work is a great help in this respect.

Unlike its heroine, though, Coco Before Chanel adheres to conventional decorum, following the biopic's favored narrative arc that's as constricting as a corset, its devotion to period detail as ultimately frivolous as the flopping hats and embroidered plant forms that the pre-war society dames hide their bodies under. Beneath its pretty production values, the film is as lifeless as the models who parade past Coco in the final, All About Eve-quoting scene.

Opens September 25

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