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Coco Before Chanel 

French bio-pic reveals the formative years of the influential fashion designer

Coco after Chanel is probably the more interesting story -- the French woman who was not only one of the world's most famous fashion designers, but also revolutionized how modern women dress. Instead, Anne Fontaine's languid bio-pic recounts the early years when a teen-age orphan named Gabrielle began assembling the pieces to re-fashion herself as Coco Chanel, the urbane and self-assured arbiter of 20th-century style.

It's a bit of a curious film, in that if you know about Chanel, you can put this slowly spun evolution into context: Coco (Audrey Tatou) strains at corsets; is blasé about sex as currency; bristles at France's pre-war class restrictions; and so on. (Some scenes smack of the apocryphal. On holiday, Coco stares intently at the fisherman's striped shirt; in another scene, she demands to know what a fantastic but unknown fabric is. "Jersey!" declares the wearer. Eureka, indeed.)

Yet to a viewer unfamiliar with Chanel, Coco unfolds as a very low-key account of one country girl's ascension of the ladder, via a mostly emotionless affair with a wealthy older man (Benoît Poelvoorde), a useful friendship with an actress and an erotic dalliance with a rogue-ish Englishman (Alessandro Nivola). Mildly amusing, but such viewers will miss the larger payoff.

While Tatous, at 33, might be a trifle old to portray the gamine teen-ager, it's a welcome change to see her in a role that calls for her to be moody and calculating rather than simpering and cute. And as expected, the clothing -- even the ridiculous, overdone garments that Coco detests -- is simply gorgeous to goggle. In French, with subtitles. Starts Fri., Nov. 6. Manor

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