Tuesday’s Overlooked: Coco Avant Chanel (2009)

Continuing with my French-themed posts for the week, I present Coco Avant Chanel (Coco Before Chanel) as part of Todd Mason’s ongoing Overlooked Films blogging series. Be sure to visit his site for more interesting titles.

As the title suggests, Coco Avant Chanel is the story about the early years of the iconic designer (played by Audrey Tautou), from Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’s humble beginnings in a Catholic orphanage to her transformation as a steely and creative force who would soon take the fashion world by storm. The film frames the story principally through her affairs with Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) and Englishman Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel (Alessandro Nivola), who would turn out to be the first great love of her life.

‘Boy,’ as he was known, is largely credited with being the great source of influence for what would later become trademarks of the Chanel design house. As their relationship takes one final, tragic turn, the film stops, summarizing her later accomplishments, with no mention of any additional dalliances or her allegedly dubious activities during the Second World War.

For me, Audrey Tautou is pleasant screen presence; here she replaces the ebullient charms that many fell in love with in Amelie to create the portrait of a determined, creative force. Although I have not seen her in as many films as I should have, I can see why she is such a popular actress in her native France.

For fans of fashion, Coco Avant Chanel offers an interesting insight into the times and influences of Chanel and how she revolutionized women’s attire as a consequence. Where it may leave some fashionistas disappointed is that it features very few of the actual designer’s clothes, etc. throughout (after all this is Gabrielle/Coco BEFORE she is Chanel, remember). But if you are patient, there is a little payoff by the end of the film.

If there is something to be said not in the film’s favor, it does suffer from moments where pacing is an issue. In other words, there are drawn out moments that do not necessarily aid in the advancement of the story and appear to be there just to be there. Still, as a form of home entertainment, you should forgive the film its sins and simply enjoy.

Additional Notes:

  • Coco Avant Chanel is co-written by director Anne Fontaine and screenwriter Camille Fontaine, with an assist from playwright Christopher Hampton (Les Liaisons Dangereuses – play and film, screenplay for Atonement). The story is based on the Chanel biography L’Irrégulière (The Nonconformist) by Edmonde Charles-Roux.
  • Karl Lagerfeld, current head designer and creative director of Chanel, oversaw the re-creation of costumes and accessories for the film.
  • Coco Avant Chanel received one Academy Award nomination (Costume Design), four BAFTA nods, including one for Best Actress and total of six César Awards (the French Academy).

Photos source: Sony Pictures Classics


  1. I saw this a little while ago. I did enjoy it, but I agree about the pacing.

    My wife loved it as she is a fashion designer in her heart, studied at university.

    Thanks for higlighting it
    Scott Lawlor recently posted..DVD Review – Columbus CircleMy Profile

  2. After seeing Tatou in both AMELIE and DIRTY PRETTY THINGS in quick succession (rather diverse performances), I’m willing to give almost anything she does a shot. Even with longueurs…
    Todd Mason recently posted..The CW network announces summer series…one of them potentially interesting, two aggressively inaneMy Profile

    • Hey Todd

      Dirty Pretty Things is STILL in my DVR queue after good knows how long. I have seen bits and pieces of it but I have not sat down and watched it straight through. The one I want to watch is A Very Long Engagement because I read the book in college and remember how interesting the story was.

  3. Jack Deth says:

    Hi, iluv and company:

    Interesting choice this week!

    Say what you will, Coco Chanel knew how to put together, design and later create fashion that flattered women. Audrey Tatou has the impish Audrey Hepburn thing down pat and pulls off her role with elegant ease. In a well thought out, researched and executed period piece that bears a second or third look.

  4. Patti Abbott says:

    Yes, this was a so-so movie for me. Tatou trades so much on cuteness and it seemed like a rather thin screenplay. That cuteness is not going to be enough soon.

  5. Oh I actually saw this with my girlfriends during Girls Movie Night not that long ago. I LOVE fashion but for some reason this film didn’t captivate me as much as I thought it would. Tatou is beautiful and the fitting choice to play Coco Chanel though. I’d agree w/ Patti above that the screenplay is kinda superficial.
    ruth recently posted..Classic Review: The Thing from Another World (1951)My Profile

  6. I’ve only seen Audrey Tatou in Amelie and Da Vinci Code. She is charming though. I would like to see the new movie she’s going to be in soon, but maybe i’ll look into this one too.
    Max recently posted..Come Watch the First 10 Minutes of ‘The FP’My Profile

  7. I am very interested in this movie and I bought the DVD a couple of months ago, but didn’t get around to see it, I should do it soon! Great post, you reminded me of it!
    Diana aka Aziza recently posted..Eastern Promises [2007]My Profile

  8. I’ve decided, after reading of Chanel’s very dubious war time enterprises in Paris and her NOT being held to account after the war, that I want nothing more to do with the woman, either in print or in movie form or fashion form. There are no two ways about it, if what I read is correct, she was a collaborator.

    Style and fashion saavy can’t make up for that.

    • Hey Yvette – that is a very principled and understandable stand. Much respect.

      I had not know the extent of her alleged WWII activities until I started researching more about her life after catching the film (I linked to that interesting NY Times article in the post).

      For me that is sort of the way I feel about a film like “Birth of a Nation.” I think I will eventually watch it at some point but for years on GP I could not bear looking at it and appreciating it as a ‘cinematic masterpiece.’

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