Stage and Cinema film and theatre reviews

Audrey Tautou in Coco Before Chanel




picture - Coco Before ChanelFilm Commentary

by Chad Menville

published September 25, 2009


Coco Before Chanel

rated PG-13

now playing in New York and Los Angeles


Upon their initial meeting, there existed no script; yet, after only five minutes of speaking with actress Audrey Tautou (Amelie, Dirty Pretty Things), director Anne Fontaine (La Fille de Monaco) was struck by Tautou’s “will, her audacity, the density of her gaze,” and at once saw in her a reincarnation of Chanel. Tautou agreed to the part. The result is Coco Before Chanel.


Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel used to say, “I invented my life because I didn’t like my life.” An orphan, “she built her destiny… by inventing as she went along,” notes Fontaine. Like Fontaine, Chanel started out as a dancer, singer and actress. As the ultimate designer of not just her own style but of her life, Chanel created the details of her destiny, even predicting the exact moment of her death. A self-made person with an irrefutable charisma, Chanel embodied the essence of the French.


The film is much more than a story about fashion. It is about her life choices that shaped her style and defined her as a person, as well as her talent, pride and fearlessness that shaped the person she was to become. We see her as a young woman in a relationship with a humorous but crude racehorse owner, Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde). Also is her brief time with Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola), the love of her life. A heroine embodying many complexities, Chanel was an inventive and transformative risk-taker. What set her apart was that while others hoped, Coco invented.  


Filmed in Paris and Normandy, director of photography Christophe Beaucarne goes for naturalistic effects, and costume designer Catherine Leterrier (who has worked with such directors as Altman and Demme) had the critically important job of showing the influences that shaped the Chanel style. Alexandre Desplat (Syriana, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) composed the score, and the production designer is Olivier Radot. In addition, the production was given the support of the Maison Chanel, who opened their archives and collections.


Attending a roundtable with Fontaine, Tautou, and Nivola, on the day of the film’s New York premiere, Tautou shared her thoughts on Chanel. Asked whether, in her own eyes, she is as great a risk taker as her character, she replied, “When you are an actor you don’t really take risks, but to become an actor you take risks.” And as for how she has come to view Chanel, after those four months of filming? “She made clothes for herself first; she didn’t want to serve a cause…she created a new way of seduction for women…created a style that at first seemed more masculine, but in fact was more neutral.”


Because Tautou is aware that she is not everyone’s cup of tea, what she wishes most is for her audience to not be indifferent.  Considering the disarming allure of Tautou’s dark brown eyes being expressive on the screen, it is nearly impossible to become indifferent to her performances.  


chadmenville @


read William Gooch's report of the roundtable discussion with Audrey Tautou


read Kevin Bowen's review of Coco Avant Chanel


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