We don't see Coco Chanel in an actual classroom in Coco Before Chanel, the meticulous, somber new biopic of the fashion designer before she became an icon. But throughout writer-director Anne Fontaine's film, the young Coco (Audrey Tatou) is a student, quietly gathering the elements of what will be her style.
Deposited at an orphanage by her father as a child in 1893, she stares at the nuns around her, downloading the crisp whites of their wimples for future use. When she's apprenticed to a hosiery maker and trying to make money on the side singing in bars with Adrienne Chanel (Marie Gillain, playing a composite of Chanel's aunt and her sister), she rips apart a corset, giving Adrienne's lush body a chance to move within the clothing. As a young woman, vacationing with her lover at the beach, she covets the simplicity of the striped sweaters the sailors wear to mind their nets.
The film follows the lonely young singer and seamstress into the life of a courtesan, a job she's not particularly suited to. She meets a rich gentleman farmer, Etienne Balsan (the marvelous Benoît Poelvoorde), and follows him to his château outside Paris, drawn by a lack of other alternatives and a desire to get closer to Paris. She offers herself physically but without any indication that she is interested in the act from a personal perspective. Her only attempt to ingratiate herself is in learning how to ride Etienne's beloved horses, and even then, she's got an ulterior motive: she likes the horses too. They and the indulgent lifestyle that goes with them intrigue her.
Etienne introduces her to a gang of party boys, their mistresses and some artistic types, and while Coco holds herself at a distance from most of them, she does make a few contacts that matter. The most important of these is an actress named Emilienne, a composite Fontaine created from two historical figures, played to the mischievous hilt by actress Emmanuelle Devos (Sur mes levres). It's Emilienne who encourages Coco to start making and selling her simple little hats, putting her on the road to her real career.
On the relative scale of courtesan keepers, Etienne is a kindly boss, although he never lets Coco forget her place. When he attempts to send her away, she refuses. She's tenacious but never tender. Early in the movie, she makes the pronouncement that a "woman in love is like a begging dog" and she sticks to it, until Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola, giving off the vibe of a young Daniel Day-Lewis) comes along. He introduces her to great books and the notion that she is exceptional. "You're elegant," he says, and with him, for what seems like the first time in the film, we see Tatou's dazzling smile.
The phrasing is interesting in that it makes Chanel the woman sound like a good suit. Later, when Boy asks Etienne if he can "borrow" Coco for a few days, the way you'd ask for the loan of a sweater, our hearts sink for her. Any happiness she has seems likely to be fleeting, but he, like so much else in the film, is a provider of inspiration. His shirts, his pajamas, his own elegance will eventually be reflected in her clothing. They are emblems of him, but also hold pieces of her past; her simple life of poverty is just as influential.
Those who love fashion will be intrigued by this, at least to a point, after which Coco Before Chanel starts to feel like witnessing a sponge at work in the act of absorption. That's not generally the stuff of compelling cinema. We prefer the end results of a personal education rather than the acquisition of it. If Project Runway were about the formation of the designers' sensibilities rather than the creative execution of that sensibility, would anyone watch? This automatically puts Fontaine's film at a disadvantage, and the truly enigmatic nature of her subject only compounds it. "You want, but you don't know what," Emilienne tells Coco, and the movie keeps us at that same remove. It may be too respectful of the legend it seeks to illuminate.
Tatou is far prettier than Chanel was, which isn't any kind of insult, given that she's also prettier than 99.99% of human beings. And her almost black, knowing but unknowable eyes lend themselves to portraying mystery. But as lovely as she is, she's not someone to whom style comes naturally. A person with innate style can put on a sailor shirt and make you want to run out and get exactly that shirt. You put on that shirt and realize you don't have "it," that you imitate but don't emulate. Tatou in Chanel's beloved sailor shirt doesn't have "it" either, as much as you want her to. This is not her fault; this odd, nearly undefinable gift can be fostered, as we see with Coco herself, but not if you weren't already born with something that goes beyond grace or physical beauty. If it could be bottled, one wonders, would such a thing smell like Chanel No. 5?