By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin December 9, 2009 at 9:33AM
Screen biographies often hew to a formula, but director and co-writer Anne Fontaine has dodged cliché at every turn to create a vivid portrait of the young woman who became a legend in the world of fashion, Coco Chanel. What’s more, she found the perfect actress to embody her in Audrey Tautou.
Fontaine (who wrote the screenplay with her sister Camille, based on Edmonde Charles-Roux’s book) admits in the film’s production notes that she has used
dramatic license. Her goal was to give us an impression of the factors that forged Chanel’s worldview, as well as her sense of style. A period film like this could drown in production design and detail, but Fontaine doesn’t try to show off: the costumes serve a storytelling purpose, as they should, so when the young Coco rejects the current style of ornamentation in hats and suggests simplicity instead, it makes a valid (and visual) point.
Benoît Poelvoorde gives a colorful and charismatic performance as Chanel’s wealthy benefactor who subsidizes her “independence,” and that’s one of the story’s more intriguing aspects: from childhood on, Coco was stubborn and marched to her own drummer, but she saw no contradiction in using men to achieve her goals, on her own terms. Alessandro Nivola is also quite good as the one true love of her life. But it is Tautou around whom the film revolves, and she effortlessly embodies the character of Chanel in her formative years.
Coco Before Chanel is intelligent, entertaining, and eye-filling. The drama is perfectly supported by a beautiful score by my favorite contemporary film composer, Alexandre Desplat. Yet like Fontaine’s other collaborators, he never intrudes or attempts to steal the show. His music becomes part of a seamless whole.