One of the first movies I reviewed
here at DVD Talk was Coco Chanel, a biopic of the designer starring
Shirley MacLaine originally broadcast on Lifetime Television.
It was a terrible film that trivialized this remarkable woman's early
life as a series of turgid affairs, without ever illuminating the sources
of her artistry. I naively assumed that Coco Before Chanel,
a French production starring Audrey Tautou, might right some of those
wrongs. I presumed that a French director and crew would be more
likely to treat a national heroine and global icon with a bit more probity.
I was wrong. Not only is Coco Before Chanel an incredibly
dull film, but it commits most of the same offenses as Coco Chanel,
albeit with better production values and a more appropriate cast.
Still, Anne Fontaine cannot resist the temptation to look at Chanel's
youth as anything but a series of soap opera subplots strung together
without ever asking the question "What made Coco Chanel a fashion
revolutionary?" This is what she is remembered for, and despite
Fontaine's best efforts, her reputation will remain unsullied by this
As is usually the case, the
writing is to blame. The plot of this film is almost identical
to Coco Chanel: Coco (Tautou) is an orphan; then a seamstress;
then a nightclub singer; then the kept woman of Etienne Balsan (Benoît
Poelvoorde); then the lover of his best friend Arthur "Boy" Capel
(Alessandro Nivola). This over-simplification is the film's
fault. Along the way, Coco occasionally fusses about with fabric
and hat-making, but we don't know why she's interested in such things
or what kind of vision she has. It's just background activity
for the predictable, rote romantic story.
The screenplay is the primary
offender here. Its boring assumptions about Chanel's romances
challenges neither cast nor crew, though they try hard. But they
are up against a real drag of a story, and one that's already been
badly told, too boot. Instead of investing this version with much-needed
depth of character, it opts to essentially remake the awful
Coco Chanel. This means a lot of cursory, expository plot
development and character "moments" that deal strictly with the
unconvincing romances. Chanel comes off as a bit more nakedly
opportunistic here than in Coco Chanel, especially in terms of
her romance with Balsan. But the affair with "Boy" Capel comes
off as a Sex and the City-type female fantasy, and not the once-in-a-lifetime
love that it actually was, according to Chanel herself.
It would be remiss to not credit
the cast and the production crew. The performers try their best,
and Tautou does invest the character with a credible hardness that develops
gradually throughout the narrative. Poelvoorde is quite good as
Balsan, too, and we feel his restrained pain when Capel shows up and
sweeps Chanel off her feet. The film looks beautiful, with excellent
photography, production design, and, yes, costumes (the movie was made
with the cooperation of the House of Chanel). It's unfortunate
that a film with such resources wasn't able to develop a fuller portrayal
of its important, influential lead character. Coco Chanel's
fascinating life is still waiting for a decent film.
A small set of rather good
bonus features are included. First off is an audio commentary
from co-writer and director Anne Fontaine; it's in French with English
subtitles. The Making of Coco Before Chanel
(46:14) is a thorough behind-the-scenes piece. Coco Before
Chanel: The Meeting (18:17) focuses on Chanel herself and her influence.
Walking the Red Carpet (7:50) features footage and interviews from
the film's various premiere events. The Theatrical Trailer
(2:03) wraps things up.
It's surprising how lifeless and "Hollywood" this French production is. I expected a more thoughtful treatment of this fashion heroine from her compatriots. Coco Before Chanel is fairly well-acted, but a silly script prevents the film from being anything other than an agreeable momentary diversion. Rent it.