Coco Before Chanel is like La Vie En Rose without the self-destructive bent. Edith Piaf (Marion Cotillard) and Gabrielle Chanel (Audrey Tautou) are street urchins, original old-school hustlers who survive by their seemingly meager charms (at least in relation to those of their bustier and broader competition) and their wiles, both feminine and performative (which the terribly cynical might say are the same thing). The main difference that separates these two women, and might end up distinguishing the films based on these two remarkable people, is that while Piaf had a more addictive and obsessive element to her personality, Gabrielle is so tightly focused that she’s like a needle pulling thread, stitching together a life hemmed by inevitability.
Gabrielle will become Coco and then transform again, into Coco Chanel — it’s just a matter of time, the whens, the how longs of the story are all that remains a mystery, and even in that there is precious little magic in the weaving of this spell. The film posits that it is Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola), a dashing young Brit with his own streak of independence, who sets her free as the two become lovers.
Yet for all the genuine love on display (Nivola and Tautou excel together in what feels like a passion of mind over heart), Chanel never takes her eyes off the grand prize. And Anne Fontaine’s film is much like its protagonist: an assured bit of filmmaking that keeps us at a distance when we would rather come closer to the flame. Grade: B-