For someone who was as celebrated internationally as France's Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, the woman who inspired dozens of biographies by changing the shape of 20th century fashion, not that much is known for sure about her formative years.
"Chanel lied all the time. She used to say, 'I invented my life because I didn't like my life,' " Anne Fontaine has said, with Audrey Tautou adding, "Chanel always disguised the reality. It takes some cunning to know who Chanel really was."
Though Chanel's reticence may sound like a barrier to filmmakers, it stimulated co-writer and director Fontaine and star Tautou, who've combined to turn "Coco Before Chanel" into a superior filmed biography that brings intelligence, restraint and style to what could have been a more standard treatment.
The most obvious credit goes to the strong, sure performance of Tautou, who costarred in "The Da Vinci Code" following her breakthrough in the successful "Amelie." Tautou not only resembles Chanel, she inhabits the role completely, using flashing eyes and a relentless intelligence to convey the unbending strength of a woman determined to make something of her life in a time and place when that was far from the norm.
The decision to focus "Coco" on the fashion designer's formative years was made by Fontaine, who cast Tautou before the script was written. One of the most interesting of contemporary French directors, Fontaine's earlier films, particularly "Dry Cleaning" and "How I Killed My Father," brought empathy and tact to emotionally complex stories of troubled and troubling relationships.
Though "Coco Before Chanel" is much less edgy than those earlier films, it shares with them a sensitive interest in the destiny of society's outsiders. And no one was more outside the system than Gabrielle Chanel, born poor in rural France and, after her mother died, abandoned by her father to be brought up in an orphanage run by nuns.
It's in the nature of "Coco Before Chanel" that we have the advantage over its subject: We know Chanel's career arc, her success at turning fashion almost inside out by creating clothes for women that allowed for movement and freedom. And the film uses that by letting us notice things, such as the unusual black and white habits of the Aubazine order that might have influenced the designer almost without her knowing it. After the orphanage years, we see Chanel around the turn of the century living with her sister Adrienne (the character, played by Marie Gillain, is a composite of Chanel's real life sister and aunt). Based in the town of Moulins, they are trying, without much success, to succeed as cabaret singers, though Chanel does acquire the nickname "Coco" after a famous song of the day.
Even in these early days, the key elements of Chanel's personality -- her sharp tongue and formidable will -- are present and accounted for. A gift for survival was one of this young Napoleon's strengths, though at the time neither she nor anyone else had any idea exactly what world she would be conquering.
Then, as often happens with ambitious folk, fate takes a hand in Chanel's life, not once, but several times. First she meets the wealthy horse fancier and playboy Etienne Balsan (the marvelous Belgian actor Benoit Poelvoorde) and ends up living in his chateau as his mistress.
Bored beyond measure and aghast at the way fashionable people dress, Chanel raids Balsan's closet to create clothes for herself.
She also meets a popular stage actress (Emmanuelle Devos) who is so wild about the hats Chanel has designed for her own use she starts to wear them herself.
Another friend of Balsan's who has an even bigger influence on Chanel is Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola), a wealthy Briton who so believed in her work he financed her first Paris shop. Capel was also the star-crossed love of Chanel's life, and her struggle to allow herself to feel an emotion she had refused to believe existed is one of the film's most interesting dynamics.
"I know how to express the present," Chanel liked to say, and showing us just how that expression took form and shape is the accomplishment of this satisfying film.
'Coco Before Chanel'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content and smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: At the ArcLight, Hollywood; and Laemmle's Royal, West L.A.