Capturing a life as colourful as Coco Chanel’s in 1 hour and 50 minutes was never going to be easy. The revolutionary designer who cut up corsets to allow women the freedom of more masculine clothes was a bag of contradiction. As The Independent points out, “despite her vaunted pride and independence, she was not so proud or independent to refrain from sponging off men.”
So it was perhaps inevitable that Anne Fontaine’s Coco Before Chanel would receive mixed reviews. When the film came out in France in April, critics attacked Fontaine for getting too bogged down in biographical detail and failing to fully explore Chanel’s complex character.
“[Le film] manque l’essentiel : le (sale ?) caractère d’une femme qui réussit à monter sa propre marque… à une époque où les femmes qui voulaient s’affranchir de leur foyer avaient le choix entre bonne ou prostitué.” [The film missed out on the most important aspect: the (dirty) character of a women who launched her own fashion label in an era when women wanting to escape home life had two options: to be a servant or a prostitute.]
“Quand Coco s’amuse, et ce n’est pas souvent, Coco contente. Quand Coco s’ennuie, la plupart du temps, Coco pas contente.” [When Coco has fun – which isn’t often – she’s happy. When Coco is bored –most of the time – Coco isn’t happy.]
But most of the French critics reserved praise for Audrey Tautou, who, playing the title character, brought depth which the film otherwise lacked.
Le Monde said:
“Chanel aura pour première utilité de reléguer Amélie au musée. L’actrice n’élude aucun des travers: l’ambition forcenée, la mythomanie, l’absence de scrupules.” [Chanel has above all served to relegate Amelie [Poulain] to the dustbin. The actress doesn’t avoid any of her bad points: her crazed ambition, her pathological lying, her lack of scruples.]
British critics, who finally got a chance to see Coco Before Chanel when it was released in the UK this week, thought much the same. Chris Tookey in the Daily Mail, branded the film a “stodgy biopic”, while Wendy Ide in The Times said: “Rather staid in its approach, this film is nowhere near as fascinating and unpredictable as its subject.”
Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, not overly excited by this “tastefully furnished drama that rolls out pretty conservatively”, saw Coco Before Chanel as memorable for Tautou’s performance: “She can carry off a big role in a big movie, and portray a complex, creative personality. This is a world away from Amélie’s simpering ingenue.”
Next year, another Chanel film comes out. This time the focus is on Chanel’s relationship with the revolutionary composer, Igor Stravinsky. Will Chanel & Stravinsky better illuminate Chanel’s character? Will Anna Mouglalis, who plays mademoiselle do as well as Tautou?