Biopic follows struggle of a fashion icon in 'Coco Before Chanel'

A biopic is kind of like reality TV, but with people you're actually interested in. It generally involves taking a famous person's biography, cutting out some of the boring stuff while ignoring other stuff that doesn't support the story you want to tell, and voila: a movie audiences will pay to see.

The film screens Friday and Saturday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

"Coco avant Chanel" " or "Coco Before Chanel" for those of us who don't know what "avant" means " is just such a biopic. It takes a selective, truncated look at Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel as she struggles through her young womanhood to transubstantiate herself into a 20th-century fashion icon.

We meet young Gabrielle in 1893, being dumped at a convent/orphanage at age 10 (newcomer Lisa Cohen) by her father. Prophetically, the nuns teach Gabrielle to work as a seamstress. Fifteen years later, Gabrielle (Audrey Tautou, "The Da Vinci Code") is working as a seamstress with her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain), in Moulin.

One night, while singing for change, they meet Etienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), an aristocratic millionaire who's slumming in town while he fulfills his military obligations. He takes a liking to Gabrielle and begins calling her "Coco" after a song about a dog she sings with Adrienne.

After her sister takes up with a man and moves out, Coco seizes a chance and pays a visit to Balsan, who reluctantly lets her stay at his chateau outside Paris. There, Coco learns how to ride horses, hobnob with his rich friends and take up hat-making as a hobby.

By-and-by Englishman Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola, "The Eye") comes around on the party circuit, and Coco falls in love with him. Balsan, with whom she has been carrying on an affair of financial convenience, is mildly jealous.

Throughout, Coco spends a lot of time hunched in corners, chain-smoking and making snarky comments about the other women's dresses and big, feathered hats.

"Coco Before Chanel" bears a lot of similarities to the recent biopic about Amelia Earhart. Both movies are true to their periods, depicting strong women who swam against the tide of their times' gender expectations.

Both movies also feature insipid attempts to create dramatic love triangles that lack actual drama. The relationship between Capel, Chanel and Balsan is too congenial and civilized to warrant real tension. No one hits anyone else in the mouth, screams or even throws a cocktail against a wall. Balsan simply states his jealousy, and everyone moves on.

Still, "Coco" has more teeth than "Amelia." The superior character development makes the ending sadder, and Tautou has more je ne sais quoi than Hilary Swank, which is saying something.

However, the film fails to reveal anything fundamental about the importance of Chanel or her times. For one thing, the movie almost totally ignores World War I, which had to have affected everyone involved. For another, director Anne Fontaine (who co-wrote) decided to focus on Chanel's love life which, while somewhat entertaining, isn't that interesting. "Mike Robertson

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