'Coco Before Chanel': Biography of fashion designer hardly seamless

Fashion pioneer's life and loves stitched into bore

Emmanuelle Devos (left) portrays an actress who helps the career of Coco  Chanel (Audrey Tautou) in  'Coco Before Chanel.'

Chantal Thomine-Desmazures/Sony Pictures classics

Emmanuelle Devos (left) portrays an actress who helps the career of Coco Chanel (Audrey Tautou) in "Coco Before Chanel."

"Coco Before Chanel"? Whose bright idea was that? Isn't that like "Amelia Before Airplanes"? Or "Frankenstein Before Med School"?

When the movie ends with a brief sequence showing the now-celebrated French designer, Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel (Audrey Tautou), observing a lineup of models draped in her latest fashions, the sudden glamor and style appear to our eyes like a desert oasis to a man dying of thirst. We're made aware of just how tedious the movie had become in its slow, inevitable plod to Coco's triumph.

Emmanuelle Devos (left) portrays an actress who helps the career of Coco  Chanel (Audrey Tautou) in  'Coco Before Chanel.'

Chantal Thomine-Desmazures/Sony Pictures classics

Emmanuelle Devos (left) portrays an actress who helps the career of Coco Chanel (Audrey Tautou) in "Coco Before Chanel."

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, who began her life as headstrong orphan, and through an extraordinary journey, she became the legendary couturier who embodied the modern woman ...

Rating: PG-13 for sexual content and smoking

Length: 110 minutes

Released: September 25, 2009 NY/LA

Cast: Audrey Tautou, Benoît Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola, Marie Gillain, Emmanuelle Devos

Director: Anne Fontaine

Writer: Anne Fontaine, Camille Fontaine, Edmonde Charles-Roux

More info and showtimes »

As in the current biopic about aviatrix Amelia Earhart (14 years Coco's junior), "Coco Before Chanel" presents its heroine — no doubt correctly — as a cultural pioneer whose pursuit of her passion was emblematic of the liberation of womankind. In this case, the unshackling is almost literal, as Coco's stripped-down, menswear-inspired designs replaced the heavy corsets, trains, feathers, flounce and "pastry shop" excesses of ladies' dresses and hats with garments that were chic, modernist and practical (she borrowed the idea of simple straw hats from farmers, and broad stripes from fishermen).

One character in the film calls Coco an "anarchist," but the fashion grenades she tossed brought harmony, not chaos. As Coco asks a woman about her gaudy "meringue"-like hat: "With that on, how can you think?"

Pretty to look at, thanks to its early 20th century costumes, set decorations and automobiles, and its location shooting in Paris and Normandy, the film traces Coco's development from abandoned youngster to struggling nightclub singer and seamstress to millionaire's mistress to savvy social climber in the world of the rich, sophisticated and influential. The always wonderful Emmanuelle Devos plays a famous stage actress who becomes one of Coco's first patrons; Benoît Poelvoorde is the wealthy baron whose lust provides Coco with her entree into high society. Alessandro Nivola is the English businessman who convinces Coco love is not "best in fairy tales."

Directed and co-written by Anne Fontaine, "Coco Before Chanel" is admirable in its lack of sentimentality, but it's also oddly uninvolving; when a significant death occurs near the end of the film, I was unmoved, because by this time the characters were so well-established they had become bores. It's hard to imagine that "Coco After Chanel" — a movie depicting Coco's life at the head of the international Coco Chanel empire — wouldn't be more intriguing.

The film is at Malco's Ridgeway Four.

— John Beifuss: 529-2394

© 2009 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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