Coco Before Chanel -- Film Review

PARIS -- Spectacle, a love triangle, heritage settings, bravura acting, witty dialogue, a bittersweet finale: There's something for everyone in Anne Fontaine's "Coco Before Chanel," and with the title providing name recognition to die for, her film appears set to storm multiplexes worldwide.

There also is -- not the least of the movie's pleasures -- the sense of a keen intelligence marshaling and shaping the material, shunning cliche and sentimentality and creating meaning out of what for once is not the standard biopic procedure of ticking off the boxes in a celebrity CV.

Fontaine's focus is on Chanel's formative years just before World War I, the transition from the modest, virtually peasant background of her childhood to the world of fashion and haute couture that she came to revolutionize. The young Gabrielle (Audrey Tautou), or Coco as she soon became known, meets and moves in with the wealthy racehorse owner Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), leading the life of a courtesan, resenting her dependence, keeping a tight rein on her emotions and all the time observing and learning from the elevated circles in which she finds herself.

She is befriended by another of Balsan's many mistresses, the actress Emilienne (Emmanuelle Devos), who encourages her to develop her talents and strike out on her own. She then finds love in the shape of Arthur "Boy" Capel (the U.S.-born Alessandro Nivola), an English businessman who steals her from under Balsan's nose and finally sets her up in business.

The love story is engagingly done, but Fontaine's core interest is in showing how Coco becomes Chanel, in pointing out the markers along the path that led a penniless young woman, with no resources other than her inner strength, to become a key figure in shaping contemporary tastes in style and design.

Tautou fully inhabits the role of Coco, her face a mask as if her character has yet to determine which identity she is to assume, sexually as much as socially. The flamboyant Balsan, by contrast, appears to be all of a piece -- Poelvoorde is excellent, stealing many of the scenes he appears in -- but Fontaine shows that his force-of-nature persona too is a mask, concealing deeper vulnerabilities.

"Coco" is Fontaine's first venture into costume drama, but her portrayal of a woman making her way in a perilous prefeminist world is wholly convincing. Alexandre Desplat's score is tasteful and unobtrusive and the period detail impeccable.

Opens: Wednesday, April 22 in France (Warner Bros); U.S. this fall (Sony Pictures Classics)