”In order to be irreplaceable,” said the legendary French couturier Gabrielle ”Coco” Chanel, ”one must always be different.” The very feminine, very inward-looking French biopic Coco Before Chanel examines the influences that made Chanel so different — and so irreplaceable — the way an observant fashion student might deconstruct an haute couture garment to understand how it’s built. The woman who became Chanel grew up a poor, skinny orphan in a convent school, where she learned sewing as a trade. She idled in her early years as a cabaret singer, lived with one protective rich man while falling in love with another, and hewed to a life of unmarried ? independence that hid a tough, sad heart.
Coco Before Chanel is dreamiest when ? director Anne Fontaine — working through muse Audrey Tautou — views the world through young Coco’s eyes, literally. We see the girl look at nuns’ habits and, later, admire her lovers’ masculine wardrobe; the next thing you know, she’s cutting up men’s shirts and freeing generations of women from the tyranny of corsets and flounce. Tautou is a fascinating, unsmiling, petite presence with a severe brow and an androgynous appeal, so much so that I wish Alessandro Nivola (Junebug) were a more robust beau as Arthur ”Boy” Capel, the love of Chanel’s life. Still, Tautou looks great in the boy clothes — the foundation of Coco Chanel’s womanly empire. B