If you've ever worn Chanel, or wanted to, if you've ever taken out a second mortgage so you could dab yourself with Chanel No. 5, you may be interested to know that Gabrielle (later Coco) Chanel was not born into luxury. This is the comforting big news behind "Coco Before Chanel," a better-than-average biopic starring Audrey Tautou as the daunting French designer who changed the face of 20th-century fashion.
I hasten to add that this movie can be enjoyed even by those of us who are fashion-challenged. As it happens, Chanel's ideas about style happen to coincide with my own: Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. If you don't believe me, take a look at some of the ladies' hats in this film. Before Chanel came along, they often resembled feathery, upturned fruit bowls. Just think of Chanel as the anti-Carmen Miranda.
"Coco Before Chanel," which was directed by Anne Fontaine and co-written with her sister Camille, shares the designer's aesthetic of modesty. Without a great deal of fuss the film moves us along the trajectory of Coco's life from her humblest beginnings to her success in the finest salons.
There's an aha moment early on, though it's understated. Coco has been placed, along with her sister Adrienne (Marie Gillian), in an orphanage run by nuns, whose wimples she admires for their stitching. This is probably the only movie to suggest a link between a nun's habit and haute couture, but it makes a lot of sense.
Coco winds up a seamstress who, to make ends meet, entertains nightly at a provincial music hall. Fending off the male customers who mistake her for a prostitute, the chain-smoking Coco seems as tough as any dame from a 1940s film noir. She resents the slobbery advances of her admirers but she also knows that the only way to get ahead in this society is through the ministrations of men.
She becomes the mistress of a scamp sophisticate, Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), who comes complete with his own country estate. Coco soon takes up residence. The relationship between the older Étienne and Coco is complex. Far from being submissive, Coco rails at him for his indiscretions, such as hiding her away in the kitchen when fancy dinner guests show up. She also influences his fashion sense, for which he is duly grateful. (The way to a lover's heart is through his lapel?) She also infiltrates Étienne's dinner parties and befriends an influential actress (Emmanuelle Devos) who propels her fashion career.
When Coco takes up with a handsome young English businesssman who goes by the name of "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola), the film loses some of its edge. Fontaine presents the pairing as a woozy bout of lovelorn lyricism. To my eyes "Boy" Capel is just a refined species of cad, which doesn't make him much better than the ungentlemanly Étienne, although Coco – and, more to the point Fontaine – seem to think so.
But this wooziness is largely dissipated by Tautou's performance, which is unsentimental even when Fontaine is piling on the hearts and flowers. Tautou was charming in "Amélie," but she's been playing that same cutesy tune for too long. "Coco Before Chanel" elevates her to a new class as an actress. It's as if the dewiness of her earlier roles had burned off. In its place is a fierce singularity.
I wish Fontaine would follow up with a sequel: "Coco After Chanel." Tautou's performance cries out for a second act. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking.)