Coco avant Chanel (Coco Before Chanel)
Following the death of their mother, a young Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel (Lisa Cohen) and her sister Adrienne (Inès Bessalem) are dropped off at a Roman Catholic orphanage by their father. For years, the abandoned girls wait in vain for his return. There, under the supervision of the nuns, the young sisters learn the useful skill of sewing.
Leaving the orphanage as adults, they subsist by working as seamstresses at a dress shop during the day and cabaret singers in a bar at night. While performing, they encounter wealthy customers who frequent the drinking establishment. Determined to avoid the social blight of being poor and orphaned, Coco lies about her past, telling the patrons that her father went to America leaving her and her sister in the care of aunts who beat and starved them.
Before long Adrienne (Marie Gillain) is swept off her feet by one of the men and whisked away to his country estate with the promise of an impending marriage. (Unfortunately, her lover never seems to get around to making the commitment that would result in his social suicide.)
After her sister leaves, breaking up their act, Coco (Audrey Tautou) packs her bags and shows up unannounced at the rural home of Baron Ètienne Blasan (Benoît Poelvoorde) whom she met at the cabaret. In effect, she offers to become his mistress in exchange for the opportunity to live at his expense. At first the Baron keeps Coco hidden upstairs in his lavish home whenever his friends arrive. He even tries to send the petulant woman away after she unceremoniously barges into one of his outings with friends. But slowly the brooding brunette manages to work her way into his social circle, even if she is kept on the borders of it. In time she meets English businessman Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel (Alessandro Nivola) among the houseguests and soon becomes his lover as well.
During this time the no nonsense seamstress censures the extravagant dresses and hats of the French aristocracy. Refusing to wear the perfunctory corset, she instead chooses simple styles with a decidedly masculine feel. She also begins creating hats for the actresses and other women she associates with at the country house. With little hope of changing her social standing through marriage, the up-and-coming designer begins to broaden her style influence among the fashion-forward Parisians.
Performed in French with English subtitles, Coco avant Chanel gives a glimpse into the difficult past of one of the world’s most influential fashion designers. While many of Coco’s actions, such as stealing, frequent smoking and sexual encounters (which are implied in scenes of passionate kissing and couples undressing) will diminish this foreign film’s family appeal for older teens, this stylist’s journey from an orphanage to the top runways of the fashion world is a tribute to her determination and talent.