Condensing a person’s life to a small, representative chunk of time is generally an excellent idea for a biopic, because it captures the subject’s essence without getting mired in the sprawl of a birth-to-deather. Still, there’s something perverse about Anne Fontaine’s Coco Before Chanel, an origin story about the famed French designer that’s about as exciting as the never-to-be-made Peter Parker Before Spider-Man. Chanel’s ascendancy to the top of the Paris fashion world, which she conquered through the simple elegance of her designs, is relegated to postscript, and it’s by far the most exciting and visually striking moment in the film. The rest is Costume Drama 101, a drab love triangle that casts Chanel as one of those plucky, outspoken, conspicuously modern heroines who always ruffle feathers in period pieces.
To that end, Audrey Tautou brings subtle conviction and candor to a role that others might have overplayed. There’s passion in her Chanel, but also a calculated intelligence that lets her assert herself without flagrantly stomping on social norms. Opening in a Catholic orphanage in the late 1800s—a setting that speaks to her humble roots while also hinting at the beginnings of her design aesthetic—the film jumps ahead 10 years later to find Chanel working as a seamstress by day and a cabaret singer by night. One night, an ostentatiously wealthy scenester (Man Bites Dog’s Benoit Poelvoorde) discovers her at a nightclub; eventually, he whisks her off to his estate, where she becomes his friend and reluctant mistress. Later, her life takes another turn when she falls in love with a British industrialist (Alessandro Nivola) who appreciates her independent streak.
There are indications scattered throughout Coco Before Chanel of a major designer quietly and persistently honing her craft, but most of the film could exist without the Chanel name and still smell like the same perfume. Headstrong women might have been hard to find in turn-of-the-century Europe, but heroines like Tautou’s are a dime a dozen in costume dramas, and there isn’t enough material detailing what makes her Chanel a special case. Only at the end do we witness the inspired, chain-smoking intensity of an artist at work, and perhaps hope vainly for sequel.