Coco Before Chanel
By S. Jhoanna Robledo,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Fashion biopic is OK for teens; more style than substance.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
Coco never doubts her innate fashion sense, nor her ability to make it on her own terms at a time when women had few options other than depending on men. Her strength and fiery independence raise plenty of eyebrows, but she really doesn’t care, and in the end is able to achieve her goals.
Positive Role Models
Coco’s devotion to living independently, despite her limited means and low station, is admirable. However, her chosen path is becoming a mistress to a wealthy man who treats her like property. Women have few options in this period, and many must make the least-bad choice to get by.
Violence & Scariness
A man doesn’t lay a finger on his mistress, but he does talk about her in a dominating, demeaning manner, making it clear she’s like his property.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Men and women flit from one partner to another. Some scenes showing them kissing and tussling in bed (no nudity). Frank conversations about what it’s like to be a kept woman.
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The film is in French, with English subtitles. No swearing in either language, though there is some subtle innuendo.
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Products & Purchases
Not much, except toward the end when more of Coco Chanel’s clothes and hats are on display.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Plenty of smoking and social drinking at parties, including a few balls that get quite bawdy and raucous. A few scenes take place in bars, with lots of drinking and suggestive behavior.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that this historical biopic depicting Coco Chanel's life before she hit it big as a fashion designer examines her somewhat scandalous love-life, in which she is kept by one man but is in love with another, both aware of the other. Her benefactor often treats her like chattel. Though she asserts her independence, she puts up with his disrespect, too. Nevertheless, Coco come across as an incredibly strong woman, a pioneer in many ways. There's a good bit of drinking and smoking, and some subtle love scenes. The movie is in French, with English subtitles.
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Where to Watch
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What's the Story?
Plucked from a music hall by a wealthy womanizer, Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (Audrey Tautou) discovers she has a talent for less-is-more fashion, and dreams of a life where she stands on her own two feet. Part of her inspiration is an English lover, Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola), who remains enamored despite marrying an aristocrat. Strangely, this setup -- she with Etienne; he with his fiancée and, later, wife; the two of them together when possible -- leads to her realization that the life she wants is one in which she has no one to answer to but herself. Love, she wants, but independence, even more.
Is It Any Good?
While Tautou has presence and Poelvoorde is fearsome as a chauvinistic lover who is surprised to discover how much he cares, the movie doesn't leave one breathless like the designer's fashions do. This French language-drama is regimented in its chronological approach and lacks the joie de vivre a biopic about possibly the chicest woman that ever lived ought to have.
As a subject, Coco compels. But this sliver of her life is paltry, material-wise. Yes, there's the tug-of-war between two men -- not really much of a war, since both appear all-too-willing to share her -- and the fascinating beginnings of Coco's exacting eye. And there's her struggle to be seen on her own terms and not as an accoutrement to a man. But that could've been condensed into an hour, leaving another hour for more of her life. (There has been controversy over the hemming of Chanel's reputation as a Nazi sympathizer.) Or, at least, for more glimpses of her at work. The few scenes we get of her doing this come alive. We understand this film is entitled "Coco Before Chanel" for a reason. But for most viewers, Coco is Chanel, and seeing the before is made greater if we see the after.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about why Chanel decides to become Balsan's mistress. Did she have any other options? What does her situation say about the opportunities available to women at the time?
What do you think about Chanel's romantic entanglements? Is it possible for her to be with the man she loves?
- In theaters: September 25, 2009
- On DVD or streaming: February 16, 2010
- Cast: Alessandro Nivola, Audrey Tautou, Benoit Poelvoorde
- Director: Anne Fontaine
- Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 110 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: sexual content and smoking
- Last updated: March 31, 2022
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