THOUGH ITS SUBJECT is arguably the most recognizable in fashion, Coco Before Chanel is more concerned with individuality than clothing. As Coco Chanel herself once famously put it, "Fashion passes, style remains." And style, its significance, is what director Anne Fontaine (The Girl from Monaco, Dry Cleaning) captures in this inspiring portrait of a young Chanel before she made her fame and fortune.

Contrary to the opulence she made a career of promoting, Chanel (a mesmerizing, and for-once not cloying Audrey Tautou) was born an illegitimate orphan who worked in dives as a mediocre cabaret singer before grafting herself onto the first likely millionaire to come within striking distance. This was Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), who filled his mansion with drunks and silly socialites in giant hats and suffocating corsets. As bitterly disdainful as she was of these women and their costumes (it didn't help that for a time Balsan hid her when they were around), it was this cadre of early customers amused by her mannish dress and simple hats who launched her career.

Fontaine's film isn't for fashion-insiders only; Chanel's eccentric style is portrayed as an extension of her outsider status and determination. Yes, there are moments when she whips up a little black dress for herself, or discovers jersey, but the clothing is primarily a manifestation of Chanel as feminist. Even her affair with Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola), which ended in heartbreak, is implied here as the final steeling for a long, landmark career.

To this day, Chanel—who habitually lied, rewriting her life story—remains controversial, in particular due to an affair she had with a Nazi officer much later in life. But Fontaine distills her most admirable qualities, as a woman who valued hard work, independence (financial and otherwise) from any man, and an uncluttered wardrobe.