Coco Before Chanel movie review: For a woman who revolutionized fashion, the film about Coco Chanel's humble beginnings were decidedly unfashionable. She grew up in an orphanage, an abandoned child who aspired to be a tacky cabaret singer. She sucked at it. Thankfully, she didn't suck at designing clothes, as she soon discovered following a string of affairs with powerful lovers, whose relaxed, masculine clothing inspired her visionary designs. A perfectly cast Audrey Tautou channels the designer in this understated biopic, which threads through Chanel's early years leading up to the founding of her groundbreaking fashion house—as enduring today as her famous little black dress.
The buzz: Movies about fashion have been in vogue this year, with successful documentaries like Valentino: The Last Emperor and The September Issue. Last fall, Shirley MacLaine's starred in the TV movie Coco Chanel and yet another film, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is due soon. Insert your own fashion knockoff joke here.
The verdict: Like the frocks that inspired it, Coco Before Chanel is elegant and austere. Writer-director Anne Fontaine (The Girl From Monaco) approaches the designer's life with a calm unsentimentality, allowing Chanel's acid wit and bluntness to dictate the tone. (Why did you cut your hair? she's asked at one point. Because it got in my way, is the matter-of-fact response.) It's a hoot to watch Chanel take her lovers' clothes and transform them into the classic pieces that would define her style: tailored jackets, breezy blouses, smart trousers. And it's all delivered with deadpan delightfulness by Tautou, whose gamine charm leavens Chanel's harshness. Frustratingly, Chanel remains a riddle—as inscrutable to us as she was to her lovers. Yes, Coco Before Chanel does its best to cut, sew and drape the designer's mystique into a pretty film. Perhaps that's the genius of this iconic, iconoclastic designer. She was never meant to be deciphered.
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