"Biopics are often tricky tasks. Telling the story of someone’s life when you’ve only got a few hours to play with means creative decisions have to be made about which bits to focus on"

Biopics are often tricky tasks. Telling the story of someone’s life when you’ve only got a few hours to play with means creative decisions have to be made about which bits to focus on.  This is doubly hard with someone like Coco Chanel, who led an interesting and varied life and right up till the time she died at the ripe old age of 87. 

Anne Fontaine’s biopic focuses on the life she led before she became the household name and fashion magnate we all know. In doing so you’d hope the film would illuminate her development and paint a rich picture of how she rose from the poor house to one of the most influential women of the 20th century.  Sadly, it never does this.  Instead it remains a flat depiction of her life before the call of the fashion houses.  We never really get a sense of who Coco was or what made her tick, just a bland and featureless story which only scratches the surface of a full and interesting life.

Two young sisters are sent to an orphanage where they are taught to sew by the nuns who run the place. 15 years later, we’re introduced to Gabrielle and Adrienne working as seamstresses by day and cabaret performers by night.  Gabrielle (now nicknamed Coco) is taken under the wing of millionaire playboy Etienne Balsan and becomes increasingly more outspoken and unconventional in her dress sense.  After meeting Arthur “Boy” Capell with whom she falls in love she has the good fortune to design a hat for a famous actress and her career as a humble seamstress skyrockets until she is able to lay the foundations of her fashion empire.

It seems a little unfair to criticise a film for sticking to a particular period but arguably the most interesting aspects of Coco Chanel came later in her life.  This is a woman who not only revolutionised women’s fashion but was rumoured to have had an affair with composer Igor Stravinsky, lived in the Hotel Ritz in the centre of Paris for more than 30 years even during the Nazi occupation of France and was criticised strongly for her romantic involvement with a Nazi officer and spy. 

If you’re going to leave out these biographical gems, then what’s left must be just as scintillating.  But what we’re left with is a shallow depiction of how Coco became the great woman that she was.  Audrey Tautou plays Coco as cold and austere, deliberately contrary and confrontational – behaviour which would be unlikely to garner a male sponsor who in those times was crucial if you were to have any hope of independent success.  Surely the real Coco was more charming, more likable and more complicated than this?

Her relationship with Balsan is left curiously unexplored.  He’s arguably the most interesting character: he’s on the fringe of a society he doesn’t really like and keeps up appearances by secluding Coco in a wing of his mansion away from the influential gentry, but beyond their shared social discontent, we see very little of what endeared him to Coco in the first place.

There’s far too much of Coco sulking around bars like the world’s best dressed raincloud and not enough on how she honed her eye for style or what drove her to become the woman who would liberate women’s fashion from its straight-laced corsets.  Consequently, we’re left with a plain rags-to-riches story which is dull and uninspiring and quite the opposite of what you’d expect from someone as incandescent as Coco Chanel.