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coco_before_chanel08If Coco Chanel was a superhero, “Coco Avant Chanel” would be called her origin story. Here we learn about the how the superstar designer went from orphan to unhappily kept woman to finding her secret weapon—the little black dress. Of course she’d never wear something as gaudy as a logo on her chest, she exemplified understated class, but she was a wonder woman who created an empire in a business primarily run by men.

As the title suggests this is the story of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel before the fame. When we first meet her she is being shunted off to an orphanage by an uncaring father. Raised in austerity she becomes a seamstress who moonlights as a nightclub singer. While working at the club she enters into a long affair with an older playboy aristocrat named Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde). He provides for her and elevates her social status ever so slightly—mistresses were tolerated in turn-of-the-century French society, but not celebrated—but their relationship falls apart when she meets a young English businessman who would become the love of her life, Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel (Alessandro Nivola).

Like “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” or “Iron Man” this movie gives us the background we need to fully understand how she went from zero to hero except that the hero part is barely examined. We follow Chanel just up to the point at which she becomes a major fashion force. Director Anne Fontaine is more interested in the events that drove the designer to revolutionize the fashion industry rather than the revolution itself.

Audrey Tautou, the waifish French star of “Amélie” and “The DaVinci Code,” is an inspired choice to play the iron willed designer. She’s been criticized for looking dour throughout much of the film, but I prefer to see her look as one of steely determination as she navigates the turbulent waters of Chanel’s private life. The charismatic Tautou—who bears an uncanny resemblance to the designer—slowly develops the character, showing the struggle Chanel faced to enter society, to be accepted and have her work taken seriously. It’s nicely rounded performance that breathes life into a person who, despite placing on Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century, is a mystery to the average viewer.

“Coco Avant Chanel” works both as a bio pic (which could easily be followed by a sequel detailing her life at the top of the fashion field) and a romantic melodrama. Anchored by a terrific performance from Tautou and luscious production design it’s an inspiring rags to riches tale.

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