The worldwide biopic obsession has spawned another dull chunk of hagiography, this time from France's Anne Fontaine (who directed the juicier The Girl from Monaco). Coco Before Chanel, as indicated by the title, is about Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (Audrey Tautou) before she became a designer. It's a fine idea; instead of rushing through formative pre-fame experiences or relegating them to flashbacks, the filmmaker makes the buildup to Chanel's success the focus of her story. The problem is that Chanel's life before she hit it big seems to have been largely uninteresting, and it is rendered even more so by Fontaine's tasteful period treatment.
The film traces Chanel's path from orphan to singer/seamstress to protégée of a rich playboy to lover of one of said playboy's friends. Last time I checked, we cared about Chanel because she brought comfort and simplicity to punishing women's attire, not because she was a social climber. The film nods obviously at its heroine's sartorial tastes (she scorns feathered hats and straitjacket-like corsets), but her talent comes off as little more than a symptom of boredom with froufrou French society. And boy was I bored by this froufrou French movie. Without the fashion angle, Coco Before Chanel is another tale of a strong-minded woman flouting convention, and as such it offers little to grab on to. Part of the problem is Tautou, whose cutesy Amélie Poulain persona clings to her like—gulp—a Chanel sweater; struggling to make her doe eyes and heart-shaped mouth look tortured, she mostly looks like... Amélie Poulain in a shitty mood.
The ultimate culprit is Fontaine, who brings bland observational compositions and genre clichés—lovemaking in the rain, a first trip to the sea, swirling ballroom dances—to material that would need a sharp point of view to pull us inside Chanel's intertwined worlds of loneliness and ambition. The movie leaves you with the depressing feeling that not everyone deserves a biopic.