"Coco Before Chanel" explores the French icon's humble beginnings until her explosion onto the international stage of fashion design. Also breaking out is actress Audrey Tautou in the title role, forsaking the pixie parts she personified in "Amélie" to play a complex maturing woman out to upset the maledominated industrial applecart.
Outside turn-of-the-century Paris, the Chanel sisters, Gabrielle and Adrienne, are dumped in an orphanage by their never-to-return father. Every Friday, Gabrielle (not Adrienne) waits for her dad, sadly watching as other orphans meet theirs.
Cut to Paris years later, where the young adult Adrienne (Marie Gillian) and Gabrielle (Tautou) perform a silly little sex song about a dog named, "Coco," in a music hall, where they are often mistaken for the ever-present prostitutes.
However, one aristocratic patron, Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde) finds a happy medium in Gabrielle, who is christened, "Coco," based on her song. Coco becomes his mistress. Res iding in a back room of his country estate, she is forced to eat in the kitch en, out of sight of his high society friends.
Not content with her lowly station, Coco hooks onto a popular actress, Emilienne (Emmanuelle Devos), im pressing the thespian with her revolutionary fashion sense. Utilizing her seamstress skills, Coco first creates sty lish, but practical hats, a departure from the immense chapeaus dominating the heads of well-born ladies. Before long, she's freeing females from the bondage of bodices and bustiers, while allowing them the luxury of loose fitting slacks.
But all these ideas lead toward a bad word in the male world, "business," as run by a woman. To get there, Coco must do some master manipulation, using love and lust as leverage. Playing off Balsan and his handsome buddy, Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola), Coco becomes the Queen of Fashion, opening the way for such modern trend setters as Jacqueline Kennedy.
Smartly crafted by writer/director Anne Fontaine, "Coco Before Chanel" doesn't waste time by psychoanalyzing. It keeps the story simple and chic, much like Chanel clothing. Yet, through Tautou's perceptive performance, we go past the clothes and under the skin to see what drives Coco to greatness.