Tautou dazzles in brooding, satisfying 'Coco'

Audrey Tautou, back, as Coco Chanel and Marie Gillain as Adrienne in "Coco Before Chanel."

Chantal Thomine-Desmazures

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"Coco Before Chanel" gives us a vastly different version of French actress Audrey Tautou than the one most of us are used to seeing.
RelatedCOCO BEFORE CHANEL — ★★★ — Audrey Tautou, Benoit Poelvoorde, Alessandro Nivola; with English subtitles (French dialects); rated PG-13 (vulgarity, sex, slurs, mild profanity, nude artwork); Broadway Centre"Coco Before Chanel" gives us a vastly different version of French actress Audrey Tautou than the one most of us are used to seeing.

She's not that same cute, perky, sweet and silly young woman here that she was in such delights as "Amelie" (2001) or "A Very Long Engagement" (2004).

In fact, she's a bit sulky, petulant, brooding and manipulative in this mostly satisfying biographical drama.

But Tautou is surprisingly convincing and is just as winning as ever in the lead role, that of Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel. She's the perfect choice to play the legendary French designer, who wasn't always the happiest and sunniest of personalities.

As the film's title implies, "Coco Before Chanel" mostly encompasses the period of Chanel's life before she became the toast of the fashion world. In this version of events, she's shown struggling to make ends meet — by day she's a seamstress, by night she's a cabaret girl, as part of a performing duo with her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain).

Luckily, she finds a patron of sorts in the nightclubs: idle-rich playboy Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde).

Gabrielle just shows up one day and moves into his palatial estate. Balsan takes this in stride, though he hides her from his more affluent friends and acquaintances.

However, Gabrielle — now known as Coco, her childhood nickname — makes a few friends of her own, including Balsan's former love, actress Emilienne d'Alencon (Emmanuelle Devos).

Coco also begins a romance with another man, would-be English coal magnate Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola).

It's clear that co-screenwriter/director Anne Fontaine has no idea how to wrap up this part of the story. (So she ends things with a clunky, clumsy montage sequence.)

Yet there's a lot to like here. The film looks beautiful, and Alexandre Desplat's score is suitably moody.

And Tautou is sure to be another of this year's Best Actress Oscar contenders, based on this performance. In many respects, this might be her best work to date.

"Coco Before Chanel" is rated PG-13 and features suggestive references and language (including song lyrics and sex talk), simulated sex and other sexual contact, derogatory language and slurs, scattered mild profanity, glimpses of nude artwork (paintings and statues), and a brief violent imagery (a car crash). Running time: 110 minutes.