'Coco Before Chanel'

"Coco Before Chanel" knits a convincing portrait of the designer's journey.

More sentimental than chic, Gallic biopic “Coco Before Chanel” nonetheless knits a convincing portrait of the designer’s journey from her humble beginnings as a provincial seamstress to the halls of Parisian haute couture. Focusing on the era in which Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (winningly played by Audrey Tautou) served as mistress of an eccentric millionaire, the film reveals, via meticulous period imagery, how the couturier forged a style that would change the way women dressed in the 20th century. Warner Bros.’ April 22 Gaul release should scoot gracefully down the theatrical runway before wafting overseas like a splash of No. 5.

The first of two Chanel biopics skedded to hit screens this year, this one, co-written by helmer Anne Fontaine and her sister Camille, limits its scope to the time in the designer’s late 20s when she began showcasing her distinct creative voice. The opening, purely visual flashback shows the young Chanel arriving at an ominous Catholic orphanage after her mother has died and her father has left to support the family.

The stark setting and drab religious garb — superbly rendered by production designer Olivier Radot and costume designer Catherine Leterrier — will have an enduring impact on her future designs, whose cornerstones will be simplicity and sophistication.

The action then jumps to a decade or so later, as busy bee Chanel (Tautou) is working days as a seamstress and nights as a cabaret entertainer (“to pay for her dresses”), alongside her sis, Adrienne (Marie Gillain). During a fun and flashy dance number, she crosses paths with debauched heir Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde); before long, she’s moved to his country estate, where she serves as his friend, mistress and inhouse style consultant.

Caught in a lavish world where women overdress themselves in bails of lace, suffocating corsets and hats oozing with flowers, Chanel begins to experiment with her lover’s clothing, designing outfits that are both easier to wear and easier on the eye. These sequences are among the film’s strongest, revealing the contrast between the heavy 19th-century styles worn by the epoch’s wealthier class and Chanel’s vision of a sleek, intelligent wardrobe to help place women on an equal footing with men.

Pic’s third section brings a melodramatic twist to Chanel’s sudden and impossible affair with a British industrialist (Alessandro Nivola). The drawing-room drama and ensuing love triangle feel a tad forced, but they do explain how Chanel is pushed to liberate herself from kept-woman status through her relentless work ethic and gifted eye.

For a film that is, after all, about fashion, helmer Fontaine (“How I Killed My Father” and the glossy “The Girl From Monaco”) and d.p. Christophe Beaucarne (“Irina Palm”) make things extremely pleasurable to look at. Between lingering wide shots and gliding p.o.v. camerawork, the crisp visuals show Chanel forever analyzing the stylistic tendencies of her surroundings.

Tautou’s perf is one of her finest to date, revealing her character’s headstrong personality through smart delivery and a permanent but attractive pout. As with his portrayal of a serial killer in “Man Bites Dog,” Belgian thesp Poelvoorde manages to make the fairly despicable Etienne seem quite likable by the end of the movie.

Coco Before Chanel

France

Production

A Warner Bros. France (in France)/Sony Pictures Classics (in U.S.) release of a Haut & Court, Cine@, Warner Bros. Entertainment France, France 2 Cinema production, in association with Films Distribution, Cofinova 5, Banque Populaire Images 9, Scope Pictures, with the participation of Canal Plus, CineCinema, France 2. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Caroline Benjo, Carole Scotta, Philippe Carcassonne, Simon Arnal. Directed by Anne Fontaine. Screenplay, Fontaine, Camille Fontaine, Christopher Hampton, Jacques Fieschi, freely adapted from the book "L'irreguliere, ou mon itineraire Chanel" by Edmonde Charles-Roux.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Christophe Beaucarne; editor, Luc Barnier; music, Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Olivier Radot; costume designer, Catherine Leterrier; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Nicolas Cantin, Jean-Claude Laureux, Dominique Gaboriau; assistant director, Joseph Rapp; casting, Brigitte Moidon. Reviewed at Studio 28, Paris, April 21, 2009. Running time: 105 MIN.

With

Audrey Tautou, Benoit Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola, Marie Gillain, Emmanuelle Devos.

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