A truism about acting insists that it’s all in the eyes; when it comes to the French actress Audrey Tautou, that means performances of alert sensuality and limpid, smoldering depth.
She brings everything her eyes have to bear on her role as the title character in “Coco Before Chanel,” portraying the legendary fashion icon while still a young woman, not yet a designer and far from the extraordinarily successful businesswoman she would become.
As “Coco Before Chanel” opens, two young girls are being deposited by their father at an orphanage in France in the late 19th century. They are Gabrielle and Adrienne Chanel, who, as grown women, take up singing in cafes and pursuing wealthy men as a means of getting on in the world.
Sister Adrienne (Marie Gillain) pairs off with a wealthy boyfriend, and the prospect-free Gabrielle presents herself at the door of Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), a wealthy racehorse owner.
Living as a kept woman, Gabrielle – nicknamed Coco for her trademark song – alternately indulges and chafes at a lifestyle that entails being constantly available sexually yet kept out of sight when society comes calling.
Viewers expecting a buffet of beautiful clothes may be disappointed. In these early days on Balsan’s estate, Coco simultaneously exploits her sexuality and subverts it, dressing in simple, shapeless dresses and men’s jodhpurs.
Tautou’s performance is similarly somber and un-showy; indeed, she rarely smiles, at least before Balsan’s friend Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola) shows up, and Coco embarks on the relationship that would launch her into new territory, personally and professionally.
“Coco Before Chanel” has it all: striving, sensuality, romance and a bittersweet ending that turns out to be just the beginning. It provides an absorbing and sobering portrait of a singular, steely determination as it was forged, long before it made itself known to the world.