'Coco Before Chanel' gives no-frills look at designer

Coco Before Chanel (NR)

2 1/2 stars out of 4

Long before designer labels meant spending too much on stuff you don't really need, there was Coco Chanel. She created and sold women's clothing and accessories that were functional, looked good and appealed to both the hoi polloi and the privileged. Good luck finding a designer who can pull that off these days.

Following on the heels of the cable movie starring Shirley MacLaine and preceding two future Chanel feature films, "Coco Before Chanel" is exactly what its title implies. This will delight the designer's dedicated fans, but might also disappoint those looking for cheap and tawdry thrills. Not to worry - the next two films are likely to be rife with plenty of dirt and scandal.

In her effort to be too accurate and non-sensational, director Anne Fontaine has crafted a largely stiff and dispassionate movie. It is widely acknowledged that Chanel was a serious, no-frills woman (something that was regularly reflected in her work) who only spoke when she had something important to say and abhorred aggrandizing herself. While noble, these humble personality traits don't result in engaging drama.

Charged with delivering the tricky title performance is Audrey Tautou who, given the dramatic restrictions, does as good a job as anyone could possibly expect. With soulful brown eyes and a face capable of limitless emotion, the stifled Tautou is still able to convey Chanel's steely reserve and fiery will.

From her origins as a provincial seamstress and low-rent burlesque singer through her days as a high society poser and eventually into the profession that would make her an icon, Chanel possessed an uncanny sense of being able to adapt to differing surroundings. She did a lot with a little which helped immensely during both the lean and flush times and allowed her to blend in with and without notice.

In adapting Edmonde Charles-Roux's book, Fontaine wisely places the bulk of her attention on the most gripping portion of Chanel's early life: the love triangle that both made and broke her. It's unfortunate this segment is so late in arriving.

While singing in a club, Coco caught the attention of Etienne de Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), a wealthy businessman and horse breeder who was fond of her in an unconventional sort of way. When Etienne discovered that his professional English associate Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola) carried a torch for Chanel, he became jealous, but not necessarily for romantic reasons. The last 15 minutes of the film is superb, adheres closely to actual events and goes far in offsetting the lackluster build-up.

One doesn't have to know much about fashion in general or Chanel in particular to recognize and admire what some people are capable of in the wake of jarring tragedy. You can either give up and fold or go on and create one of the most recognizable and steadily-performing companies in history.

Presented in French with English subtitles. (Sony Pictures Classics)