MOVIES HAVE ALWAYS been a rich source of fashion inspiration, but movies about fashion usually don't wear well. They tend toward the fanciful (Funny Face) or the farcical (The Devil Wears Prada, Sex and the City), assailing the eyes with ridiculous getups posing as haute couture.
Unlike fashion movies that emphasize spectacle, Coco Before Chanel, a French biopic about the early years of legendary designer Coco Chanel, is about the origins of style. Writer-director Anne Fontaine's screenplay illustrates how Chanel's hardscrabble childhood — she was raised in an orphanage after her mother's death — informed her practical, accessible designs. Rejecting the era's tight corsets, puffy gowns and feathered hats, she created sleek, comfortable clothes: trousers, little black dresses, signature collarless suits enhanced by ropes of chains and pearls.
Coco is played with a look of feral determination by gamine Audrey Tautou. Born Gabrielle Chanel, she acquires her nickname from a song about a lost dog she sang in bistros. After losing her singing gig, Coco arrives uninvited at the country estate of her sometime lover, wealthy playboy Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), who keeps her as a closet concubine, hidden away from his rich friends. Balsan's actress lover (Emanuelle Devos) notices her talent and enlists her to design hats and costumes.
Coco, who never married, has little use for love, observing that "a woman in love is like a begging dog." Love finds her briefly, when handsome Englishman "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola) romances her and breaks her heart, which quickly recovers when he finances her design business.
If you're not the kind of person who's fascinated to learn where Chanel got the idea for her striped tunics (a fisherman she saw at the seashore) or her pioneering use of jersey (Boy's polo shirts), this probably isn't your movie. Fashion aficionados will find it a nuanced, if slightly overlong, biography in an elegant style befitting its subject.