This coventional, sometimes moving limited biopic of renowned fashionista Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel is respectiveful of her style.
Anne Fontaine's Coco Before Chanel stars Audrey Tautou (Amelie, The DaVinci Code) and has some cinematic and actorly elegance to it. Yet, it hardly makes the same impression of something like the relatively recent La Vie En Rose.
The film (especially in its early sections) is dispassionate and quite measured as the young Gabrielle (Lisa Cohen) learns how to sew in an orphanage after the passing of her mother in the late 19th century.
Director and co-scribe Fontaine shows the transformation of the girl into womanhood as Coco (Tautou) gets her nickname after toiling as a singer in a bar with her sister (Marie Gillain).
Coco has definite ideas about what is being worn in her day, and begins to learn what she wants in her life after becoming the mistress of the extravagant Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde). Yet, she doesn't realize where her feelings for his friend Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola) will take her.
In a period of strong mysogynistic attitudes, Tautou evinces a distinctive control or restraint within a pervading wistful, no frills aura. The internalization of this character is key realizing where she exists on the status ladder and how she adopted sharp qualities like a Susan B. Anthony that would take her far in the world of design.
Fontaine shows a certain amount of dexterity behind the camera especially in working with her crew to make this shadowy epoch rather evocative with the occasional dry wit even if it comes off as a bit too stolid for its own good. It's, however, able to contrast the simple with the showy in ways which help in the characterizations.
For a yarn with much regard for the evolution of empowerment, there are limitations to how mesmerizing the details are for the story to really take off like the woman it extols. Though the misery-loves-company notion conspires against someone like Tautou, she has her moments with decent subordinate performers like Gillain and Poelvoorde. And, Nivola, still somewhat of an undervalued, relatively unknown veteran actor, makes for a good, soulful Boy who really knew the Coco before Chanel.