Coco Before Chanel goes back in black

French darling Audrey Tautou stars in Anne Fontaine's sweet, safe new biopic

About midway through Anne Fontaine’s new biopic Coco Before Chanel, the eponymous designer stands mesmerized on the shore of the coastal French town of Deauville. She’s a seaside anomaly, dressed in a loose-fitting, black-and-white tartan dress, as throngs of swimsuit-clad children and their corseted guardians swirl around her. The shot foreshadows Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s toppling of fashion’s garish, early 20th-century establishment. In this moment, Chanel is totally punk rock.

Doe-eyed French starlet Audrey Tautou (Amélie, The Da Vinci Code) plays the legendary Gallic designer, whose rags-to-riches story parallels that of another beloved femme, Edith Piaf. Both were poor little orphan girls, literally forced to sing for their suppers, who ultimately hit it big thanks to some help from their wealthy man-friends. Piaf was immortalized onscreen in 2007’s Oscar-winning La Vie en Rose by the similarly petite and brunette Marion Cotillard. While Cotillard’s Piaf was a ball-busting tour de force, Tautou’s Chanel is more self-deprecating in her brashness. As a result, La Vie en Rose puts audiences through an emotional wringer, but Coco delivers a more muted experience.

Fed up with her lot as a working-class tailor moonlighting as a cabaret singer (the nickname Coco comes from her regular performance of the campy tune “Qui Qu'a Vu Coco”), Coco escapes to the bed of wealthy saloon patron Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde). The pair’s relationship mostly consists of fighting and fucking — he content to hide her from his inner circle, she infuriated by his chauvinism. While no doubt dysfunctional, Balsan and Coco’s relationship is the film’s most dynamic. He’s cruel, dismissive and needy but he’s also her match. He seems to inspire her feistiness and drive more tangibly than her primary love interest, bourgeois Englishman Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola).

As Boy’s and Coco’s diminutive nicknames might suggest, the couple exists in a perpetual state of puppy love, and the effect is melodramatic. Their feelings may be true, but reality won’t allow them to mature: Boy’s contracted to marry for money and Coco’s resigned herself to the single life (“I knew I’d never be anyone’s wife …  not even yours”). Despite their star-crossed love, your heart may be more likely to ache for shots of the craggy French coastline or a deserted, snow-blanketed Champs-Élysées.

Among the frills and thrills of early 20th-century stylings, Chanel’s aesthetic rang out like a battle cry: Less is more! Black and white! Pants! Fontaine allows us to see the world according to Coco with long shots that slip through crowds around hats, over shoulders and down necklines. We take in tiny details like pearl studs, lace detailing, and the interplay of black and white. Instead of wondering, “Qui Qu'a Vu Coco?” (Who has seen Coco?), the film succeeds in asking, “Who has Coco seen?”