By Elias Savada | October 13, 2009

While my style sense may border on Neanderthal (generic shorts/jeans and t-shirts, whenever possible), I can admire a good film about perhaps the most celebrated icon of 20th century fashion. Anne Fontaine’s “Coco Before Chanel” isn’t about the woman who was the legend, but rather about the girl/young woman who would become that world-renown stylist, whose famous surname I remember, as a child, attached to my mom’s bottle of parfum with a N° 5.

This French production (with English subtitles) features Audrey Tautou, the Gallic incarnation of our Audrey Hepburn, in a very admirable variation of the gamin-esque role that she wears like a fine glove. Her character here isn’t quite as charmingly eccentric as her 2001 breakthrough performance in Jean-Pierre’s romantic comedy “Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain.” It’s a different role, of course, the spritely young Amélie replaced with a determined orphan (abandoned by her father) who grows into a charming chanteuse, skinny courtesan, nimble seamstress, but especially an ever-observant future artiste.

Fontaine’s first period feature will definitely make an admirable stateside splash with its stellar talent, lush A-1 production design by Olivier Radot (who won the French César Award in 2006 for “Gabrielle”), sensual cinematography by Christophe Beaucame (“Paris,” now in U.S. theatres), and, naturally, the costume design by Catherine Leterrier, who worked with Fontaine on her last film, 2008’s “The Girl from Monaco,” which never found wide American audience support. The lyrical, gentle score by Alexandre Desplat, who created the wonderful music for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” subtly adds to the film’s gravity and passion.

The script by Anne Fontaine and Camille Fontaine (no relation) isn’t weighty, instead allowing the cast to find their characters and hit their spots at the appropriate biographical moments with the suitable emotional context. Director Fontaine paces out Coco’s maturation and development nicely over the nearly two-hour film, allowing her audience to savor the growth.

Tautou is the film’s eponymous core, her eyes the access point to her character’s nascent creative soul. As a ten-year-old child (played by Lisa Cohen), Gabrielle — it would be 15 years later when she gains the “Coco” nickname when singing “Coco in Trocadero” with her sister and fellow singer Adrienne in a provincial music hall — watches the nuns in the Aubazine orphanage. Or rather she observes the black and white nuns’ habits/hats. Bingo, you know this will become an inspiration point for what became her signature design. Another moment in the film, on the beach in Deauville, telescopes Coco eying the attire of local fishermen hauling in their nets, with their attire later to become one of the designer’s memorable blue and white striped sweaters. It happens several other times (it’s hard to miss), but these motivating design salvos never feel overdone. Rather, they build up Coco’s inner strength in battling the boring hordes and society w****s. Those under-appreciative degenerates disguised as corseted fine ladies with sad clothes are the girl’s enemy to whom she must bear service, because of her lack of economic substance.

Opposite Tautou is American actor Allesandro Nivola (“Junebug,” “Jurassic Park III”), as British coal entrepreneur and lady killer Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, the charismatic and charming love of Coco’s life. Also sharing considerable screen time is Benoît Poelvoorde as an eccentric rich horse breeder Étienne Balsan, who does not love but casually adopts Coco as a concubine. Poelvoorde gives a fatherly feel to the role, perhaps a little creepy at times, but he creates an obvious emotional bond with his “house guest” that offers her the time and space to self-educate her style sense. Marie Gillain and Emmanuelle Devos provide good support as the other main female characters, Coco’s sister and their acting friend Emilienne, respectively.

It’s nice when so many technical and emotional elements come together in a film. “Coco Before Chanel” is a hard luck, true life fairy tale story told with poignant humility, embellished with solid acting and determined direction.

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