''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