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.