Coco Before Chanel

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Coco Before Chanel
Dir. Anne Fontaine. 2009. PG-13. 105mins. In French, with subtitles. Audrey Tatou, Benot Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola.

The first of two French films about Coco Chanel to hit the States between now and January (look for Jan Kounen’s Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky later this year), Anne Fontaine’s biopic transforms the designer’s early life into highbrow guilty-pleasure gold. Coco (Tautou), a seamstress in her twenties, has her heart set on becoming a showgirl, but after blowing an audition, she installs herself at the country estate of rich suitor Balsan (Poelvoorde). Resistant to a life of leisure and disapproving of the excessive overdress of upper-crust society, Coco keeps busy refashioning Balsan’s clothes into her own evening wear. Backed emotionally and financially by a dashing British lover (Nivola), Chanel monetizes her appreciation for contradiction. Her clothes bring out sex appeal by obscuring obvious attractions, getting to the feminine through deconstruction of the masculine.

Fittingly, Coco presents Chanel herself as a bundle of contradictions: Sensual but stubbornly self-sufficient, she likes the perks of being kept by a rich man and is also desperate to work. She’s too conflicted to articulate exactly what she wants, yet she’s not above scheming to get it. Fontaine hits a few trite beats—personal agony begets a flurry of groundbreaking creative activity, as when Coco responds to heartbreak by designing her signature suit—but Coco herself is a thrillingly atypical, genuinely complicated heroine.—Karina Longworth

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