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Arts and Entertainment

Movie Review: Coco Before Chanel

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When one thinks of the fashion label Chanel, one generally thinks of high-priced clothes and the long-running commercials for Chanel No. 5 perfume that featured The Ink Spots' song "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire." In the movie Coco Before Chanel, we're reminded that the label began with fashion icon Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, who fought her way up from being born in a poorhouse to founding an empire. And though the movie is about Chanel's early days, her loves, high-class friends and eye for clothes, its main theme is her desire to simply work -- and not just for anyone, but for herself.

Directed by Anne Fontaine (The Girl From Monaco) and starring Audrey Tautou (Amelie, The Da Vinci Code), Coco Before Chanel begins with Gabrielle and her sister Adrienne being dropped off at the orphanage where the future Coco would learn to sew. The movie then jumps forward to 1900 when the 18-year-old Coco and her sister were cabaret singers. There they would both meet men who would change their lives -- for Adrienne it was a rich Baron who wanted to take care of her, and for Coco it was Etienne Balson (Benoît Poelvoorde), a racehorse owner who had Coco stay with him at his chateau at Royallieu.

It's when we arrive at the chateau that the movie really starts to shine, and we realize how muted the film's palette of colors were and how confined the spaces were up until that point. Exposed to a world of easy living and excess, Coco refines her style, borrowing Balson's clothes and making them into her own. While at a horse race, the camera becomes Coco's eyes, gazing luxuriously over the dresses and hats of the upper crust. Coco herself takes to riding horses, but she bucks tradition by riding like a man instead of side-saddle, and this too would feed into her future fashion creations of female active wear that pushed aside notions of women being too fragile for outdoor activities.

While Balson's guests gallivant about the estate, Coco mainly keeps to herself. That is, until she meets the dashing Arthur 'Boy' Capel (Alessandro Nivola), an English businessman who sweeps her off her feet and takes her to the coastal resort town of Deauville. Once again, the movie shines with painterly seaside scenes of Capel in a tuxedo walking beside Coco as fishermen drag their nets. Under Capel's spell, Tautou's character really lets loose and you see her stunning smile for the first time in the movie. But you just know the happiness can't last forever.

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Coco Before Chanel is a wonder of a cinematic achievement. Not only do we get to spend the movie gazing at the perfect bone structure and deep brown eyes of Tautou, but we're also treated to the trappings of aristocratic opulence as rendered by the production design of Olivier Radot (Queen Margot) and the incredible costume design of Catherine Leterrier (Gorillas in the Mist, Prêt-à-Porter). Besides the many fine dresses and men's costumes featured, Leterrier and company reportedly made 800 hats for the movie. Meanwhile, the score by Alexandre Desplat (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) is a real standout, with memorable motifs that stir and uplift.

Through her own unique style and attention to detail, Coco Chanel would eventually change the world. Coco Before Chanel only covers the early years, but it's that determining decade that laid the groundwork for a fashion icon to set the world on fire.

Review by Ryan Vincent

Coco Before Chanel opens tomorrow