The young Coco Chanel noticed style everywhere, even in the crisp white and basic black of the nuns’ habits at the orphanage where she was raised.
“Coco Before Chanel” has a similarly keen eye for appearances, but there’s not a whole lot of passion or insight beneath the surface.
Director Anne Fontaine’s film, which she wrote with her sister, Camille, traces the early years of the French fashion designer who would come to define a bold kind of feminine style throughout the 20th century, one that was as no-nonsense as the woman herself. We see her in her early 20s as a struggling seamstress and part-time singer fending off advances from drunken soldiers, then as the live-in lover to a playboy racehorse owner, and finally as an independent woman honing her skills and refining her look.
Audrey Tautou has a striking appeal as Gabrielle Chanel — Coco, as she was known — presenting the designer’s feistiness not as bravado but as a straightforward reflection of how she felt. She’s blunt and serious but possessed of a quick sense of humor, and nothing and no one intimidates her.
“A woman in love is helpless. Like a begging dog,” Chanel proclaims matter-of-factly — and she never did marry.
Of course, Tautou looks adorably chic in Chanel’s clothes, with her petite, androgynous frame and big, brown eyes. Still, you wonder what moved her, aside from the simplicity of the men’s outfits that would inspire her own suits and hats.
After her sister (Marie Gillain) takes off with a wealthy baron, Chanel moves into the palatial home of the randy Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), functioning as his “geisha,” as he liked to call her. We never know how she truly feels about him, aside from her instinct for opportunism. And supposedly, she’s truly in love with his friend, Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola), but even her involvement in that relationship seems almost passive.
As in any origin story, though, there are plenty of a-ha moments. Chanel notices pieces that appeal to her (the striped jerseys of the fishermen trolling on the coast of Deauville) and those that don’t (the frothy hats and flowery gowns of the well-to-do women, flouncing about in the preferred style of the early 1900s). She cuts up her lovers’ shirts and ties and makes them work for her — the early incarnations of the couture to come — first for the functionality of horseback riding and eventually for everyday life.
Fontaine’s camera glides smoothly, as if to invoke Chanel’s perspective in assessing the fashions she sees around her. She goes through all the paces elegantly but never reaches out and grabs you. Certainly, focusing on the formative time in Chanel’s life is preferable to a cursory, all-encompassing biopic. But “Coco Before Chanel” only starts to get interesting when she asserts her creative and financial freedom — and that’s right when the movie’s about to end.