The only thing worse than the biopic – as a general rule my least favorite genre – is the biopic of someone to whom nothing interesting actually happens. Coco Before Chanel is astonishing in this respect. The title is perfectly clear: this is a movie about Coco Chanel before she became a fashion icon and built her Parisian empire. What this translates to in reality is a movie about a period in the title character's life during which nothing occurs. I've been sitting here trying to think of a more dramatically inert film than this one. I'm at a loss.
Look, I think it's wonderful that Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel revolutionized fashion, refused to surrender her independence, and eventually made a fortune. It's just that we don't see any of that here, at least not depicted in any compelling way. Coco Before Chanel is interesting, if at all, as a historical point of reference. If you've always wondered where Coco Chanel "came from," and would like to see her "roots" depicted by the numbers, the movie might work for you. But insight? Narrative drive? No.
Coco (Audrey Tautou) – so nicknamed because of a rowdy song she used to sing with her sister when the two were barmaids – worked as a tailor and tried to make it as an actress and singer. When that didn't work, she moved in with an aging millionaire playboy named Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), who was more than happy to provide for her handsomely in exchange for companionship and the occasional roll in the hay. Careful to avoid romantic commitments, Coco eventually also took up with a handsome Englishman (Alessandro Nivola), who was more solicitous of her creative pursuits (hatmaking, mostly) than Balsan. She dared design herself a dress sans corset. Eventually she moved to Paris, and the rest is history.
There are ways, certainly, in which this story can be seen as inspiring. It would have been easy for Coco to accede to Balsan's advances; she could have lived out her days in easy luxury, making hats to her heart's content. She could have worked to fit into the high society in which she suddenly finds herself, donning suffocating corsets and hats that look like mounds of meringue. She didn't. Instead, after dilly-dallying noncommittally for a few years in the suburbs, she ventured out on her own as a designer in the big city.
Fantastic – but not really remarkable, or inherently worth watching for nearly two hours. Of course, a film can make the most pedestrian events fascinating through nuance, subtext, psychological insight, etc. But Coco Before Chanel's approach is classic arthouse: handsome, measured, respectful, and soul-crushingly bland. After an intriguing, ambiguous opening where we see young Gabrielle settle into life at a Catholic orphanage, the film settles into a permanent stupor.
Even elements of the screenplay that seem like they should be a gift can't breathe any life into Coco. The film's Big Moment – when Chanel decides to make herself a corset-less dress and wear it to a swanky party, damn the torpedoes – is carried off with as little fuss as possible. The Englishman who sweeps her off her feet, constantly called "irresistible" is, as played by Alessandro Nivola, about as irresistible as a cardboard box. Coco herself is bright, pleasant, sometimes willful, reasonably brave; as this film would have it, there isn't much to her, or to anything that happens to her.
I was about as happy about Coco Chanel's eventual triumph, depicted briefly at the end of the film, as I was based on what I knew before I saw the movie, or as I was reading her Wikipedia page afterward. In other words, Coco Before Chanel adds nothing to the historical account of its subject's life. In still other words, it doesn't do what a movie should. Real people's real lives are not necessarily – or usually – good stories. That's why we have screenwriters, and Coco Before Chanel was very badly in need of some dramatic juice.