In an orphanage, silently standing next to a perfectly made bed, is a frail and slender ten-year-old girl with thick black hair. Gabrielle Chanel, known as Coco, and her many lives. The story of the path taken by Coco from her obscure beginnings to the blinding lights of Paris.


For a film about a classic style icon, Coco Avant Chanel is pretty conventional stuff. Outside of the lovely clothes, period design and sumptuous cinematography, there is little to distinguish it from a standard biopic as it charts its literal rags-to-riches storyline.

In opening scenes, little Gabrielle 'Coco’ Chanel and her sister are sent packing to the local orphanage by their father; their mother has died and the man who always refused to marry her wants nothing to do with his illegitimate children. The sequence is brief but the implication is clear: adult Coco’s minimalist approach to style and pragmatic approach to relationships were hatched in these early years.

A decade on, we find her working as a seamstress by day and a music hall singer by night. The austerity of the orphanage has left an indelible mark on Gabrielle/Coco (not least, the stark contrast of the nun’s habits), and she rails against the fussiness of the pre-war fashions; in an era of corsetry and a 'more-is-more’ approach to accessorising, she sticks out like a proverbial in her tailored frocks and man-style suits.

She views men as meal tickets and invites herself to live with a wealthy horse owner, mocking his lifestyle while living off its proceeds, and ransacking his closet to turn out makeshift prototypes of the styles that would later grace the runways. Coco’s talent for millinery is noticed by an actress friend and though she toys with the idea of opening a boutique, she lacks the drive and ambition to establish herself. A personal tragedy causes her to re-evaluate her priorities, and the rest – the boucle suits and quilted handbags – is Coco apres Chanel history.

It’s interesting to watch and stunning to look at, but Coco Avant Chanel’s technical strengths far outweigh its dramatic ones. The story’s central weakness is that it never really gets beneath the skin of the style icon and much of the responsibility for this must surely lie with Audrey Tautou in the central role. She is stunning and the camera loves her as she pouts and scowls – and smokes – according to her character’s mood swings, but hers is a fairly passive portrayal of a notoriously independent trailblazer.


1 hour 48 min
In Cinemas 25 June 2009,
Wed, 02/10/2010 - 11