Coco before Chanel (12A), Anne Fontaine, 110 mins

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The Independent Culture

Anne Fontaine's biopic of a woman who would become the grande dame of 20th-century couture looks very beautiful, and Audrey Tautou in the title role retains a cool mystique.

Yet, unlike her famous designs, this lacks structure, texture and interest. The young Gabrielle Chanel (Coco was a later nickname), abandoned in an orphanage on her mother's death, starts out as a singer and part-time seamstress in provincial France, then decides to hitch her star to an affluent playboy, Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde). She moves into his baronial country house, occupying an anomalous (and coyly unexplained) position between upstairs and downstairs – she eats with the staff, but drinks and carouses with Balsan's toff polo-playing friends, one of whom, an English businessman named Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola), becomes her lover.

In the meantime she dresses herself in trousers, gets busy with the draper's scissors and gives the world the Little Black Dress. Yet there's a gaping hole where a plausible psychology ought to be. Despite her vaunted pride and independence, she was not so proud or independent to refrain from sponging off men. Perhaps that was the only way she could get ahead, but the film could have been more incisive in examining this compromise.

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