Famed for liberating women's fashion from crunching corsets and comical frills, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel is more interesting as a movie character during her younger, precelebrity years than as the aged maven Katharine Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine played.
Especially when portrayed by Audrey Tautou ("Amelie"), possessing the kind of face that cameras must have been invented for.
The Coco of Anne Fontaine's movie is ambitious nearly to a fault, an aspiring seamstress playing cabaret flirt during off hours for wealthy men in order to rise from poverty to esteemed status in Belle Ipoche France.
Yet Tautou never makes her appear whorish or anything less than opportunistic in a most delightful way. She's a Jane Austen hero with carnal gumption, a crafty paramour who would fascinate even if her future wouldn't be so successful.
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"Coco Before Chanel" begins in 1893 with Coco and her sister dumped at an orphanage. The movie quickly ages her to Parisian chanteuse, drawing lascivious glances from rich men and returning them with irresistible indifference. One patron, the dumpy race horse millionaire Itienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), pursues Coco out of desperation she recognizes and exploits, moving into his mansion estate, hidden from wealthy friends who would disapprove.
From the shadows, Coco views their fashion with bemused disapproval; hats resembling meringues, waists cinched like one of Itienne's steeds, unable to move or sit comfortably. In one of several scenes of inspiration, Coco slices one of Itienne's suits, stitching it into the first of her mannish fashions to make a startling entrance. Fontaine expertly makes her eyes into ours, seeing the possibility of colors and fabrics around her.
The movie loses punch when Coco's path to fashion history is interrupted by something like a love triangle. Itienne's English friend Arthur "Boy" Capel (bland but handsome Alessandro Nivola) becomes his rival for Coco's affection, although both seem more possessive than in love. Boy provides other sartorial and eventually tragic inspiration for Coco but hardly enough to justify his screen time.
Fontaine's film ends around 1915, when Coco is just beginning to put her mark on an era of male dominance, freeing women from pastry fashions. Yet, in a dead-end finale at odds with everything before it, we see older Coco surveying a procession of models in what passes as modern haute couture. They don't appear any more liberated or comfortable than the socialites Coco freed.
All Tautou does in that scene is smile, and it's almost enough to make it work. Tautou's knack for concealing and revealing her character's thoughts makes "Coco Before Chanel" more involving than it probably deserves to be.
Coco had a reputation for making up stories about her past whenever it benefited her, an improvised caginess Tautou conveys even without speaking. You can miss a few subtitles, distracted by that lovely face.
Two and a half stars
STARRING: Audrey Tautou, Alessandro Nivola
RUNNING TIME: 1 hour, 45 minutesIn French with English subtitles; opening Wednesday at the Nickelodeon Theatre.