Based on the book by Edmonde Charles-Roux, Anne Fontaine's soaper of a bio-pic traces the fashion icon's life before the perfume and the bouclé suits. It opens in 1893, as a young Chanel gets dumped at the orphanage — and into, it seems, one highly influential simple black frock.
The waif ages into Audrey Tautou, who, with dangling cigarette and a head made for hats, weaves this grim childhood into a charismatic mix of wariness, ambition, and bite. Seamstress by day, saloon gal by night, Chanel has designs, all right — on playing mistress to a boorish bon vivant (Benoît Poelvoorde) at the center of high society.
Although the visuals and the score are often elegant, the sudsy drama and muddled ironies of a complicated love life (Alessandro Nivola shows up) wear badly, and they veil a true understanding of Chanel's artistic drive. By the end, the film has slipped into TV-ready hagiography while nonetheless inducing the urge for a crisp white collar and French cuffs.