Audrey Tautou, Alessandro Nivola shine in 'Chanel'

There are hints of the fashion icon and early feminist that Coco Chanel was to become in Coco Before Chanel, though the film focuses on the period in her life just before she became a famous designer.

TRAILER: Try on 'Coco Before Chanel'

As such, the film, directed by Anne Fontaine (The Girl From Monaco), is not an expansive biopic but a fascinating snapshot of a pivotal chapter for Chanel, her formative fashionista years.

Because it's more superficially stylish than profound, Coco leaves one wanting more — more of an in-depth examination of her complex nature, and more about the years when her simple designs captivated the fashion world.

Still, the film, while scaled-down, is quite beautifully woven, like a classic Chanel tweed.

At the heart of this handsomely mounted period drama are two stellar performances. Audrey Tautou plays Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel with flair, uncomplicated elegance and plucky confidence. Alessandro Nivola, an American actor playing a British businessman and speaking French, is a revelation. Given the ease with which he woos Coco in French, in the role of the charismatic but ill-fated Arthur "Boy" Capel, one would not guess he was a native English speaker.

He plays the role with depth, dashing charm and intelligence. Though he has skillfully played character roles in a variety of American art-house and mainstream films (Junebug, Mansfield Park), it's a pleasure to see him shine in a major part in a foreign-language film.

Coco is a respectful, measured tribute to an iconic couturier. The film spends too much time on her early dancehall days — we hear her signature "Coco" ditty more than anyone should have to. Chanel was working on her personal re-invention as she partook of the lavish comforts offered by her benefactor and sometimes lover, Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde).

The film might have benefited from expanding its focus to include more perspective about Chanel's metamorphosis from hat-maker to storied designer. Still, the expressive Tautou is compelling. Even as an awkward, cheeky girl, Chanel had an inherent belief in herself and her ability to transcend her origins.

The archives of Maison Chanel allowed the filmmakers to peruse their collections. A concluding montage of classic Chanel fashions, presented on a bevy of models surrounding Coco as she sits casually on a stair step, is a visual delight. Coco Before Chanel is a tasteful costume drama with flashes of fascinating personal history.