There is an expectation from a film with the word Chanel in it that it's going to be all about fashion. Coco Before Chanel, surprisingly, is not. As the name implies, it is about the life of the woman before the Chanel empire existed. The film never even informs us that Chanel was her last name; however, we do learn how the orphan named Gabrielle became nicknamed Coco - it was from a song she sang, when she was a cabaret singer, about a little dog. Pretty humble beginnings for the queen of fashion. She was a scrappy and practical survivor in her youth, a person who would not have succumbed to the frilly excesses of pre-World War I fashion even if she'd had the money. Though not exactly a prostitute, the film implies that she did trade sex for a roof over her head with an upper-class boor who exploited her. Yet he also introduced her into his world, giving her the connections she needed to obtain independence. The sensitive performances, the lovingly designed sets and beautiful scenery really let us experience the world of Coco.

The film has three acts: Coco's early struggle, the flourishing of her creative vision, which happens simultaneously as a great romance, and ultimately, her establishment in the world of fashion. The final act is all too short for those for those who hope to glimpse more of the iconic clothes she created from the 1920s until the day she died in 1971, but it is nevertheless incredibly interesting to witness the birth of those inspirations. Actress Audrey Tautou, who plays Coco, lets us look directly into the soul of the woman, while director Anne Fontaine literally directs our eyes to see what Coco saw: the images that influenced her designs.
It is a gorgeous film - every frame thoughtfully captured - many of them masterpieces in their own right. The sensitive performances, the lovingly designed sets and beautiful scenery really let us experience the world of Coco. And as final reward, we are treated to a Chanel fashion show, circa, perhaps 1950. This last scene of the film will take your breath away. The movie is in French with subtitles, but even this, which can be a hurdle for some viewers, simply serves to immerse us in Coco's universe. We may not come away thinking it was a very pleasant one, but Coco Before Chanel causes us to realise that the fashion industry would have gone in a very different direction if circumstances had been different for this remarkable woman.

Movie reviewed by Georgina Young-Ellis

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