It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
We talk about people "inventing themselves." That assumes they know who they want to invent. "Coco Before Chanel" begins with an abandoned orphan girl named Gabrielle, watches her grow into a music hall chanteuse, who then sidesteps prostitution by becoming a mistress. All the while from behind the clouds of her cigarettes she regards the world with unforgiving realism and stubborn ambition. She doesn't set out to become the most influential fashion icon of the 20th century. She begins by designing a hat, making a little money and striving to better herself. She wants money and independence. One suspects she would have been similarly driven if she had invented a better mousetrap and founded a home-appliance empire.
The naturalism of Anne Fontaine's film would be at home in a novel by Dreiser. Her star, Audrey Tautou, who could make lovability into a career, avoids any effort to make Coco Chanel nice, soft or particularly sympathetic. Her fashions may have liberated women from the hideous excesses of the late 19th century, but she creates them not out of idealism but because they directly reflect her inalterable personality. She didn't put women in sailor shirts out of conviction. She liked to wear them.
Perhaps because of its unsentimental approach to Chanel's life, "Coco Before Chanel" strikes me as less of a biopic, more of a drama. It's not about rags to riches but about survival of the fittest. Is Coco, young and poor, used by the rich playboy Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde)? Perhaps he thought so early in their relationship, but she uses him as well. She likes him, but she signed aboard for money, status and entry, not merely sex and romance. She sees their as a reasonable transaction. She isn't a brazen temptress but a capitalist, who collects on her investment.
Through Balsan, she meets the bold actress Emilienne (Emmanuelle Devos) and Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola), an Englishman. It's clear that to Chanel, love with a man or a woman is pretty much the same, but Boy truly does love her, and this is a unique experience for Coco. Things might have proceeded quite differently in her life if that relationship had survived. Baron Balsan, not blinded by love, sees Boy as exactly what he is -- something Coco, for once, hasn't done.