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With her mother dead and her father off to America, little Gabrielle Chanel (Lisa Cohen) is sent with her sister to an orphanage, where she waits in vain for her father's return. She grows up working as both a seamstress and a small time cabaret singer, where she earns the nickname Coco (Audrey Tautou), after a song she and her sister (Marie Gillain) frequently perform. In the nightclub, she meets the older - and much wealthier - Etienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), who becomes her sugar daddy. The young Coco's innate sense of style propels her to design hats and clothes that radically challenge the traditional clothes women around her are wearing. She flaunts convention and begins to draw attention to her talent, while she struggles with her reliance on Etienne's romantically-inspired kindness. She meets and falls in love with Englishman Boy Capel (Alessandro Nicola) but their long term plans are upset by fate. Coco must forge ahead on her own.

Review by Louise Keller:
As stylish as the brand behind the name, Coco Avant Chanel is exquisite to look at, as is its photogenic and talented star Audrey Tautou. The story traces the humble beginnings of a fashion icon and opportunist who uses every means available to achieve her goals. She is the woman who dared imagine the little black frock, dresses without corsets, hats without frills and clothes cut in definite lines with masculine influences. Anne Fontaine's film is elegance personified, although its emotional impact is less successful. Much is said, but we feel little. It is the imagery that wafts into our senses like the alluring No 5.

Coco (named after the popular cabaret song Coco qui a vu Coco) wants to work - at a time when women are decorative accessories and beholden to men. When she's bored, she feels ancient (she claims she feels 1,000 years old); whatever headstrong, beautiful Coco wants, Coco gets. Marriage was never in her plans, either. On meeting enigmatic Benoît Poelvoorde's racehorse owner Étienne ('love is a beast in fairy tales'), she instantly recognises his connections and uses them. Bedroom favours offer a fruitless cabaret audition, but more valuable is the floral bedroom she subsequently acquires in his fine château at Royallieu. Becoming the geisha he obviously desires holds no appeal, but on meeting Alessandro Nivola's smooth-talking Boy Capel, she wonders for the first time what it feels like to be in love.

As she designs the simple lines of loose-fitted black and white gown for Emmanuelle Devos' Emilienne, the influence of her orphan days in Aubazine are clear. The gawdy, 'carnival-like' frills and colours found in the Moulins cabaret, where she and sister Adrienne (Marie Gillain) performed like compliant circus clowns are nowhere to be found in her palate of choice.

Driving in a convertible in the snow, lying in a meadow in a promenade of golden autumn leaves, landscapes that look like water colour paintings: the imagery is superb. Christophe Beaucarne's cinematography shoots Tautou as he would a beautiful object - from all angles - and she is mesmerising. I can still see her in my mind's eye, wearing chic white pyjamas, cigarette dangling from her lips as she puts the finishing touches to her latest hat design. Olivier Radot's production design captures the era to perfection as does Catherine Leterrier's costumes. All the performances are excellent as we are given an intriguing entree into the woman before the brand.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The story of how Coco Chanel became a global fashion icon should be better known than it is, and this film may help spread the story, although it could have been better told. Beautifully made, granted, superbly performed by all, and evocative of the era, the storytelling falls down on those devilish details - although in this case, mostly the ones that are missing. Less screen time on establishing Coco's early days as a cabaret singer and more on her later ventures into fashion would have better balanced the story and reduced the clunky time jumps in which the audience is playing catch up and summation. I would like to see more of the workings of her early forays into making things; we get a teaser, but from simple stitching to advanced cloth cutting is a big jump. Nor are we given any clues to the dates and time shifts, which is irritating.

For much of the film, Audrey Tautou plays Coco as a sullen, manipulative and opportunistic character, almost brattish and rather petulant. Perhaps accurately. The screenplay works hard to show her as a self-possessed and confident young woman, who is certain of her taste. Tautou is terrific, delivering a nuanced characterisation that isn't afraid of those negative traits, always relying on her innate charm to keep us from being put off altogether.

Benoît Poelvoorde is outstanding as her guardian/ patron/ sugar daddy Etienne Balsan, whose wealth is an attraction that Coco is finally able to resist, for the sake of a tragic romance and a future she is confident is hers. Somehow. The question that comes to mind is what if there had been no Etienne? Would she have had the opportunity that this relationship gave her, not just in having somewhere to escape from the cabaret she didn't really like, but in meeting Boy (Alessandro Nivola), who was in Etienne's circle.

For all its niggling faults, Coco Avant Chanel, is an engaging film which provides some insight into the birth of a business that became a global empire - all because of one determined young woman.

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(France, 2009)

CAST: Audrey Tautou, Benoît Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nicola, Marie Gillain, Emmanuelle Devos, Regis Royer, Etienne Bartholomeus, Yan Duffas,

PRODUCER: Caroline Benjo, Philippe Carcassonne, Carole Scotta

DIRECTOR: Anne Fontaine

SCRIPT: Anne Fontaine, Camille Fontaine (book by Edmonde Charles-Roux)

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Christophe Beaucarne

EDITOR: Luc Barnier

MUSIC: Alexandre Desplat


RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes



LANGUAGE: French with English subtitles

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