It's questionable whether respectfully and subtly are ways to depict even the early life of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, whose dangerous black eyes gaze out of photographs as if she knows exactly where to bite you and would, if necessary.
But that's what you get in “Coco Before Chanel,” starring Audrey Tautou as the young Chanel, before the world knew her and before she knew what she wanted to do other than make the world know her. “We'll be famous,” she tells her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain).
Chorus girls, the two plan to take their act to Paris. But both are sidetracked by wealthy lovers, and Coco, uninterested in the fate of party girl or wife, spends the rest of the film struggling to figure out who she is. Her state is an apt one for the movie, which makes some interesting observations about the limited options available to women of the period. Audiences, however, might feel they too have been left in a kind of limbo.
As directed by Anne Fontaine, who wrote and directed this year's farcical French thriller “The Girl from Monaco,” the film's pace is leisurely, at times languorous. A typical, encapsulating sequence shows Chanel at an early 20th-century horse race, banished by her lover and patron, Balsan (BenoArt Poelvoorde), among the commoners as he takes his place among the wealthy in all their plumed splendor.
Coco, we are shown countless times, is forever stuck in her. She scans the crowd in a desultory sweep, ambitious when women don't do much besides live up to their social status, and unable to settle for one of those choices when all mean, to her, drab and silly modes of dressing and living. Chanel craves elegance and simplicity, which to her are each other's servant.
But what to do about it? Independence, we slowly learn watching Chanel, means more than hard work or determination. Like anything new, it has to get discovered in the first place, which is kind of what “Coco Before Chanel” is mostly about. If it were only about that, “Coco” could have been a simple but ringing sketch of feminism and creating oneself out of nothing, but the movie gets bogged down in the tropes of the biopic, never cutting an original pattern for itself. The intro is simply the first of many skippable passages, humdrum orphanage stuff that leads into the Chanel sisters' short-lived stage careers, finally settling into the bulk of the film, Chanel at Balsan's estate, messing around in experiments with men's clothes and sighing a lot at parties.
For a while it feels like the movie will lead us to that a-ha moment when Chanel realizes she's meant to change women's fashion forever. Of course, life tends to work out over many small, unexpected stages, and to Fontaine's credit (she wrote the film with her sister, Camille), this is how it happens in the film, however uncinematic it may be. But then, should we be looking for Chanel here in the first place?
There are some moments where the opportunity to cast a hot young actress seems the primary reason. Tautou, for her part, should probably stick to playing pixie types. Though she bears a slight resemblance to Chanel, her version of a complex woman is to constantly purse her lips and frown, so that even falling in love, late in the movie to an urbane womanizer (Alessandro Nivola), looks like sucking on a lemon. The overall impression Tautou creates is that of a diffident girl and budding shrew. Accurate or not, it begs comparison to Marion Cotillard's Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose,” as vibrant a performance as Tautou's is one-dimensional.
“She never married,” we are told at the end, after an obsequious scene of models applauding Tautou's Chanel as she sits, placidly and indifferently as ever, smoking on a staircase. Such a bookend overlooks the fact that the most interesting portion of Chanel's emergence as the grand lady of fashion arguably occurred during years completely ignored by the film, including survival of two world wars, her great rivalry with Schiaparelli and controversial involvement with the Nazis during the occupation. It's hard to believe a contemporary movie had a chance to include Nazis and didn't go for it. (PG-13) 110 min. HHHII