The first of two biopics of iconic French fashion designer Coco Chanel to hit the screens this year, 'Coco Before Chanel' is a reflective look at her early life and career.

Director-screenwriter Anne Fontaine has chosen to concentrate on Chanel's humble beginnings, to her rise in high society, and the flourishing of her fashion empire. Audrey Tautou is perfectly cast as the complex and mysterious Coco - the film hangs around her commanding screen presence and allure.

The story begins as a young Coco (or Gabrielle as she was known then) and her sister Adrienne (Gillain) are brought to an orphanage by their uncaring father, following the death of their mother. Jumping on 15 years, Coco resides in Paris, where she makes ends meet by working as a seamstress during the day and as a cabaret dancer with her sister by night.

She meets the affluent Étienne Balsan (Poelvoorde) and becomes his lover, staying in his country estate. Here we see the designer begin to forge her own unique style, in stark contrast to the constricting, over-the-top costumes of the time. She experiments with Balsan's clothing, making outfits which although masculine and edgy, have surprisingly feminine twists.

Coco's approach to fashion begins to get a following among Balsan's well-to-do society friends, who ask her to design hats for them, but it is when she meets Englishman Arthur 'Boy' Capel (Nivola) that she truly begins to achieve her potential. The love story between Boy and Coco is convincingly drawn and the most affecting element of the film.

As is befitting of the subject, Christophe Beaucarne's cinematography is elegant and graceful, and the costumes by Catherine Leterrier are beautifully realised, with a close attention to period detail.

Performances across the board are excellent, particularly the two men who shape Coco's life - Poelvoorde's Balsan is moody and unpredictable while Nivola's portrayal of her one true love is charming and understated.

It is Audrey Tautou's portrayal of Coco which brings the film to life, though - she manages to be both restrained while bristling with energy.

'Coco Before Chanel' is far from being a frivolous fashion movie. It is a measured and sombre study of an enigmatic woman who was well before her time and who, through her drive and talent, triumphed over adversity.

Sarah McIntyre