Coco Before Chanel opens in 1893 with a grim scene of a 10-year-old waif, Belle Époque Coco, and her sister unceremoniously dumped at an orphanage, and it ends around World War I, a few years before the Chanel empire is launched. It stops well short of the most shameful era of the designer's life: Coco When She Was Sleeping With the Nazi Spy. This Coco can be described as courtesan before couturière. Or, more cynically, Coco after corporate synergy: Audrey Tautou, who performs adequately in the title role, recently replaced Nicole Kidman as the spokesmodel for Chanel No. 5.
The life of fashion's monster sacré has been assayed many times before: Katharine Hepburn in the 1969 Broadway musical Coco, Marie-France Pisier in the 1981 biopic Chanel Solitaire, Shirley MacLaine playing her as an old broad last year on Lifetime's Coco Chanel. Demi Moore is said to be attached to yet another Coco project. The fascination with Chanel is best explained by Judith Thurman's spot-on assessment in a 2005 New Yorker piece: "Her own rules of the game, distilled over the decades, were a core of beliefs that were as much about womanhood and its paradoxes as about clothing."
Director Anne Fontaine's film attempts to dramatize the most fundamental contradiction: The proud 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.
Millionaire racehorse owner Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) first meets Coco in 1908 Moulins, where she works as a seamstress and a singer in a saloon with her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain). The enterprising young woman shows up at Balsan's house unannounced, soon to be his pet, hidden when the swells come over. Despite wan protests of "All I need is a job," Coco seems content with the arrangement, which gives her the time to make hats for Balsan's former conquest, actress Emilienne (Emmanuelle Devos, excellent as always and the only cast member capable of having any fun with her role). More money — and encouragement — will come from Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola), an English industrialist and polo player. Boy asks pal Balsan if he can "borrow" Coco for two days for a trip to Deauville, where the fishermen's striped sweaters will inspire more androgynous fashion from Coco. Capel's death sparks an interest in how to do things with black.
Coco Before Chanel concludes with an anachronistic coda: An older Coco, in a signature high-contrast black-and-white suit, sits on the famous steps of her couture house as contemporary models march past her, wearing Chanel's Greatest Hits Through the Decades (recalling a similar scene in Matt Tyrnauer's documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor). The valedictory moment feels completely unearned in a film so strenuously devoted to the years before its subject's fame — and to avoiding any mention of her unconscionable compromising during World War II.
"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 is swaddled in the sumptuous production designs of Olivier Radot. But it plays more often as a dull romance, with Chanel's role as mistress somehow worthy of noble celebration.