For me, watching Coco Before Chanel was a major learning experience. Anyone who has seen me out and about knows I'm hardly a paragon of fashion. I figure if my shoes are tied, I'm ahead of the game. So, I can't say I knew much about Coco Chanel, a woman who rose from humble beginnings in a French orphanage to an enthroned position as head of one of the world's most important fashion empires. In the hands of director Anne Fontaine, the story of Coco Chanel unfolds in ways that prove intriguing, particularly as more is revealed about Chanel's character and the society in which she operated.
The usually impish Audrey Tautou, still best known for Amelie, embodies Coco's move toward power in a strong performance. Thankfully, Tautou doesn't play the gamin card or at least she doesn't slam it on the table. That's because she's portraying a willful woman who gets as much as she gives, particularly in her relationships with men. (The movie, most of it set in the 1920s, stops before World War II, a period when Chanel -- so I"ve read -- had an affair with a Nazi officer during the German occupation of France.)
In her early years, the man from whom Chanel gains the most is Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), a well-heeled socialite who initially treats her as a kind of valued servant. She's obstinate enough to hang around the baron's estate -- even as an uninvited guest. Gradually, she uses the baron as a springboard to make business contacts and even to meet a new lover (Alessandro Nivola).
Colorful without being ostentatious, Fontaine's portrait of Coco en route to becoming a fashion czarina deftly captures the interplay between an ambitious woman and a society that's not entirely ready for her kind of drive. Ready or not, Chanel evidently didn't give a damn. She knew where she wanted to go.
Coco Before Chanel opens in Denver Oct. 9.