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Photograph by Chantal Thomine-Desmazures
Hot Coco: Audrey Tautou scandalizes polite society in 'Coco Before Chanel.'

By Her Own Design

'Coco' suits Audrey Tautou just fine.

By Christina Waters

F EW HAVE EARNED the label "original" as Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel did. The embodiment of pre-feminist sexual freedom, she came to know every cultural icon of her era and turned the little black dress into a must-have. Coming of age at the turn of the 20th century, Chanel's odyssey began in an era when women wore tight corsets, hats the size of wedding cakes and skirts with long trains. By the time of her death in 1971, she had helped to overthrow such restrictions, empowering women to cut their hair, refuse matrimony and--gasp-- seek out creative careers.

In Coco Before Chanel, a handsomely illustrated fable for modern women, director Anne Fontaine crosscuts myths of female sexuality with those of class taboos. The result is a crisp portrait of a lifestyle anarchist whose noncompliance with the status quo won her a place in history. Well, this is a fairy tale. And while we're at it, it is also a woman's film. For baby boom gals, it is wickedly de rigueur--and will help explain just how a former model can be First Lady of France today.

After childhoods spent in an orphanage, Coco and her sister started singing in dance halls at a time when the only women who worked were, well, "working girls." All others sought respectability via rich husbands, or, barring that--since class distinctions were absolute--at least a husband.

Not Coco.

In a performance as severe as one of Chanel's suits, Tautou erases her gamine past (Amélie) and constructs a taut portrait of an aesthetic rebel and emotional cynic. More show than tell, the movie plunges the penniless Chanel into the midst of an uppercrust world, where she is sheltered by wealthy horse breeder Etienne Balsan (played with dash, bravura and sensitivity by Benoit Poelvoorde). Balsan's world is decadent in the extreme, and Coco is kept away from his gentrified friends and their lives of boredom and excess (shades of Balzac!).

Laced through with working-class heroism, the film shows Coco rebelling against the oceanic gulf between those born into money and titles and the rest of her generation by making a few deft alterations in the uniforms of status. Women of wealth can't get enough of her radical ideas. The black habits of the orphanage nuns find their way into her sophisticated gowns and suits. Men's white shirts are softened into women's daywear, and the cinched waist takes a hike. For sheer fashion instincts, Chanel had few peers, and her ideas still look astonishingly fresh.

There are occasional lapses into art film preciousness--Coco transfixed by her first glimpse of the ocean, Coco lying alone in a field of autumn leaves. But even as they telegraph their public television lineage, these images reinforce just how singular and focused she had to be in order to push through the socially approved milieu.

Only at the very end does the film wander into biopic predictability. On the verge of her first runway show, Coco muses over the past, her childhood, her struggles, the men she has loved and rejected in order to become Chanel. But even the obligatory flashbacks can't dampen the spare beauty of this film, a cinematic French kiss to the fashionista in every woman.

Movie Times COCO BEFORE CHANEL (PG-13; 105 min.), directed by Anne Fontaine and starring Audrey Tautou, Benoit Poelvoorde and Alessandro Nivola, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon. In French with subtitles.

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