Four out of five stars
Rated PG-13/110 min.
I had no idea who Coco Chanel was before I saw this film and, as I write this, I’m wearing plaid pajamas, a 15-year old T-shirt and Homer Simpson slippers, so I am neither aware of great fashion nor a participant in it. I point this out because, even if you’re like me and get the majority of your clothes as Christmas gifts, wouldn’t be caught dead on Friday without an Aloha shirt and could care less whether your jeans are from Calvin Klein or your cousin Calvin, you’ll still get sucked into this elegant historical drama.
Audrey Tautou stars as Gabrielle Chanel, a broke saloon singer—given the nickname “Coco” after a song she warbled through night after night—whose relationship with a race horse owner (Benoit Poelvoorde) and a genuine romantic (Alessandro Nivola) were her escape from poverty into high living. Unlike most costume dramas, this one is never depressing or stuffy and, rather than portraying Coco as an opportunist, it presents her as a survivalist, a woman who is flustered by the condescending attention she receives from rich, fumbling men. Her knack as a clothing designer is shown as a hobby, a creative outlet, with barely a hint that we’re watching a future giant in the fashion industry whose “simple is better” approach (goodbye corsets!) was revolutionary at the time.
The music and cinematography are beautiful without being overly stylish. The emphasis is on character and the three leads are superb. Poelvoorde makes his wealthy, drunk and bored suitor a complex, even touchingly tragic figure, while Nivola (an American actor best known as Nicholas Cage’s brother in Face/Off) is not only an engagingly sincere love interest but impressively speaks nearly all of his dialogue in French. Finally, there’s Tautou, the Amelie star whose subsequent roles have been risk-takers both worthy (Dirty Pretty Things) and disastrous (The Da Vinci Code). Playing Chanel requires her to be driven, proud and internally but visibly vulnerable, and she nails it. In her final scene, she reminded me of another popular, uniquely beautiful and gifted actress with the same first name: Audrey Hepburn.
The story structure is like a three-act play: Coco’s early years spent singing dreadful drinking songs, her new life as a hopeful houseguest among the wealthy and finally a portrait of her steel-willed brilliance as a new sensation on the fashion scene. The closing scenes don’t tie up every strand and there is, of course, much more to her story than a 110-minute movie can capture.
Even though the film offers tension, surprises and sad twists of fate, it’s not an overbearing, overlong or heavy-handed biopic. Like a great book, the screenplay takes its time to shape intriguing characters who are recognizably real and all too aware of the importance of their risky decisions. This is a pleasant surprise that does what all great movies do—tells a compelling story and confounds expectations.