Before Chanel, Coco was a dirt-poor child abandoned at an orphanage: hardly original territory for a biopic. But if it hadn’t been for her tough early life – itinerant father, years in care, brief early career as a tavern singer – she might never have had the gumption to found an iconoclastic fashion house. Coco wasn’t always Chanel, but she was never ordinary.
Anne Fontaine’s film has two interests: clothes and Audrey Tautou. The outfits are purposefully terrible: Coco’s early homemade monstrosities may have been original, but they didn’t have much else over the corseted excesses of the Edwardian era. But Tautou is wonderful – a black-eyed urchin so sullen and furious you forget how beautiful she is until she smiles. Not that she has a great deal to smile about, trapped in poverty and in Paris with no idea what to make of her life.
Attempting to flee the restrictions she was born with, she turns up on a rich but boorish lover’s doorstep and starts cutting down men’s clothes. These are the keys to her personality, and director Anne Fontaine handles them with respect. It must have been tempting to make the clothes prettier and the lover, Belsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), more chivalrous, but that kind of compromise would hardly have been true to the spirit of a heroine who was never one for seeing anyone else’s viewpoint, much less accommodating it. Belsan treats her abominably, but he also introduces her to the high life and to handsome Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel (Alessandro Nivola): it’s hard to say which she takes to more.
Fontaine’s film is gorgeous, but its beauty is practical, almost textile, like a Chanel tweed. It has its own excesses: if Boy had been the hero we see here, he’d have snorted at convention and married her. But, Chanel, an inveterate fantasist who fabricated her origins as assiduously as her suits, would have preferred this version. Only a late flashback, before the glamorous finale, is unworthy – Tautou, her heavy-browed little face a-glimmer with memory, simply doesn’t require its help.