In perhaps her most pinched performance to date, Audrey Tautou concedes the characterization of fashion designer Coco Chanel to Shirley MacLaine’s televised performance in Coco Chanel (2008), the made-for-Lifetime-movie that earned MacLaine nominations for Best Actress at the Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild kudofests. I’d be very surprised if Tatou earns any nominations whatsoever for her performance in Anne Fontaine’s Coco Before Chanel (2009), though “performance” in this instance is way too generous. In an effort to render Chanel as taciturn, prickly and worldly-wise, Tautou approximates one of Chanel’s mannequins more than Chanel herself and listlessly suggests the heart of this rags-to-riches story. Tatou leaches all the life out of her portrayal of Chanel, relying instead on the film’s sumptuous set and costume design to do the heavy lifting. In this instance, however, clothes do not make the woman.
Coco Chanel is a rather fascinating figure in and of herself whose life warrants a filmic treatment. Oddly enough, many years ago while flipping through a magazine in a doctor’s waiting room, I came across two quotes by her that have stayed with me all these years. The first, a concession that the term “perfect stranger” is apt because only strangers can be perfect. The other: “Two people marrying out of loneliness only double their loneliness.” Her no-nonsense approach towards affairs of the heart spoke to the unbridled but inexperienced romanticism of my youth.
The performances that do redeem Coco Before Chanel are the charmingly seductive Alessandro Nivola as love interest Boy Capel and Emmanuelle Devos as Coco’s friend Émilienne, exhibiting more sensual entitlement in one glance than Tautou musters throughout the entire film. Benoît Poelvoorde as Coco’s benefactor Étienne Balsan likewise achieves a satisfying character arc from carousing womanizer to the man reluctantly infatuated with Chanel’s expressed androgyny.
So go for the sets, go for the costumes, relish all that fetishized period detail, enjoy the supporting performances, but don’t expect much life in this window dressing of a movie. Finally, I think it’s time for Tautou to stop being the icon of naifish wonder and amazement. Yes, she has big beautiful liquid eyes; but, the only thing amazing at this point is that she does the same old tired thing with them. Her peeking through the curtains of theatrical artifice does nothing to add magic and induced, instead, weariness with a now-familiar Amelie schtick.
Cross-published on Twitch.