Coco Before Chanel opens Friday

Chanel was a fashion revolutionary. Her simple, comfortable designs emphasized not the man-admiring feminine adornment but the woman who wore the clothes. Inspired by masculine tailoring, nuns’ habits and sailor jerseys, she democratized 20th-century styles, proving that comfort and chic could coexist. The person who did that must have been a force of nature, but one would never know from Audrey Tatou’s prim, restrained performance in Coco Before Chanel.

Gabrielle, an orphan, learns at an early age to be as hard as needles. Thanks to the nuns, she can sew a neat seam, but they clearly did not teach her to sing coquettish music hall songs (like “Qui Qu’a Vu Coco,” which provides her nickname) or use sex to get ahead in a world where women like her have few options. She’s ambitious and a quick study, and playboy Étienne Balsan is amused by her lack of artifice and her quick wit. Living as Balsan’s mistress, she surprises herself by falling in love with dashing Arthur “Boy” Capel, who sets her up in the millinery business, thus ensuring her immortality.

The film takes place around 1910, with Chanel alienated both from the stratified society and froufrou fashions. Tatou presses her lips together, playing an innately elegant gamine who was not above being a compulsive liar. But surely Chanel, not as pretty as Tatou, must have had a dazzling personality to entice all those men, especially the two here, sharing what the real Chanel called “my hot little body.”

Director Anne Fontaine lavishes closeups on little details of the riding habit and dress shirt that Chanel dictated in later decades as intrinsic to fashionable (and unfashionable) women. Costume designer Catherine Leterrier fetishistically reproduces ensembles from famous photographs, but the big picture is askew. Supposedly stylish crowds at races and balls are sloppily dressed in styles spanning two decades, and one doesn’t wear a picture hat with an evening gown!

Benoît Poelvoorde is marvelous as Balsan. Along with Emanuelle Devois as his discarded mistress (and one of Coco’s early clients) they steal the show. Alessandro Nivolo is properly decorative as Boy. If only Tatou could have summoned a little more fire to melt the glacial pace of this ambitious biopic. Coco Before Chanel presents an intriguing subject in need of a bit of crisp styling.