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Review: 'Coco Before Chanel'

Audrey Tautou captures the designer's fierce spirit in this better-than-average biopic.

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Audrey Tautou portrays Coco Chanel in "Coco Before Chanel."

Chantal Thomine-Desmazures/Sony Pictures Classics/AP

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If you've ever worn Chanel, or wanted to, if you've ever taken out a second mortgage so you could dab yourself with Chanel No. 5, you may be interested to know that Gabrielle (later Coco) Chanel was not born into luxury. This is the comforting big news behind "Coco Before Chanel," a better-than-average biopic starring Audrey Tautou as the daunting French designer who changed the face of 20th-century fashion.

I hasten to add that this movie can be enjoyed even by those of us who are fashion-challenged. As it happens, Chanel's ideas about style happen to coincide with my own: Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. If you don't believe me, take a look at some of the ladies' hats in this film. Before Chanel came along, they often resembled feathery, upturned fruit bowls. Just think of Chanel as the anti-Carmen Miranda.

"Coco Before Chanel," which was directed by Anne Fontaine and co-written with her sister Camille, shares the designer's aesthetic of modesty. Without a great deal of fuss the film moves us along the trajectory of Coco's life from her humblest beginnings to her success in the finest salons.

There's an aha moment early on, though it's understated. Coco has been placed, along with her sister Adrienne (Marie Gillian), in an orphanage run by nuns, whose wimples she admires for their stitching. This is probably the only movie to suggest a link between a nun's habit and haute couture, but it makes a lot of sense.

Coco winds up a seamstress who, to make ends meet, entertains nightly at a provincial music hall. Fending off the male customers who mistake her for a prostitute, the chain-smoking Coco seems as tough as any dame from a 1940s film noir. She resents the slobbery advances of her admirers but she also knows that the only way to get ahead in this society is through the ministrations of men.

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