Suspenseful, glitzy, cutthroat, self-serving — awards season is many things. One thing it rarely is, however, is educational. This year is different. Aspiring filmmakers couldn’t ask for a more instructive lesson in the wrong and right ways to approach a biopic than the examples offered by Amelia and Coco Before Chanel.
Despite starring a two-time Oscar winner and being the work of an accomplished director, Amelia has crashed and burned for one simple reason: It tells the story of a pioneering protofeminist in the most stilted, stale, by-the-numbers manner possible. It’s pure formula.
Coco also tells the story of a pioneering protofeminist. The difference is that it defies hoary Hollywood formula, unfolds with admirable unpredictability and smacks of real life with all its messy randomness, rather than offering a neat succession of rags-to-riches plot points.
Audrey Tautou gives the most nuanced performance of her career in the role of the headstrong orphan whose idiosyncratic sartorial sense and flexible moral code would combine to make her the most influential fashion icon of the 20th century.
Abandoned by her father in 1893, Gabrielle Chanel was raised with her sister in a convent orphanage where she learned to sew and had ample opportunity to contemplate the power of simplicity in clothing design. As young women, the pair scraped by singing risqué songs in music halls (the name “Coco” came from one such song). The point of performing in such places, we learn, was not so much to find success as a singer as to snag a sugar daddy, and both sisters wound up mistresses of wealthy men.
The soul of the movie is its depiction of the relationship between Coco and an aristocratic playboy named Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde). After they have a fling, Balsan tries unsuccessfully to get her work in a finer cabaret, then returns to the country estate where he raises horses and throws parties that seem to go on for days.
Chanel shows up unannounced and essentially offers to play the role of kept woman. She wants security and, more importantly, an entry into high society. In the scenes that follow, writer-director Anne Fontaine portrays with marvelous subtlety the gradual shift in power between the pair. At first, Chanel is hidden away when Balsan has guests. Over time, though, she crashes the party and, thanks to her beauty, wit and audacious fashion experiments, becomes an indispensable part of the scene, captivating celebrity friends and titans of commerce. The surprisingly touching tipping point arrives when Balsan realizes he needs her more than she needs him.
The realization is occasioned by an encounter that is the heart of the movie. Chanel enters into an affair with a close friend of her host, the younger, better educated and more dashing English businessman Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola). He proves the love of her life and, just slightly faster than fate can intercede, sets her up in Paris to pursue the other passion of her life. A subsequent sequence provides the perfect note on which to close — balancing the deep loss so vivid in Tautou’s dark eyes with the dazzling supernova of invention that was her Paris premiere.
Based on the biography by Edmonde Charles-Roux, Coco Before Chanel is a work as singular, restrained and elegant as any of its fascinating subject’s creations. As indifferent to tradition, too. Brilliantly acted, directed and scored, it’s a shoo-in for Best Foreign Language Film nominations and is certain to take its place among the most memorable movie portraits of modern times. Filmmaking this inspired never goes out of style.