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There is something awful - more than disappointing, bordering on the offensive - about a film that takes history or biography as its subject, but cannot manage to make an engaging story of the past. Coco Chanel is such an experience. It's baffling that the team responsible for this film consciously decided to turn the life of one of the 20th century's most influential cultural figures into a turgid, one-note telenovela. Without once touching upon Chanel's importance as a designer, her invention of the women's suit, or even what drove her to design clothing in the first place, this film presents her as an utter cipher, a pretty face around which to construct the most simplistic, tawdry romantic drama.
The story of the film opens with Chanel's first post-war show, a poorly-received flop. Here, the older Chanel is played by Shirley MacLaine with lots of zest; she, perhaps alone among the film's cast and crew, seems to have some sense of what the real woman might have been about. It is our loss that MacLaine is only onscreen for about a quarter of the film's 139-minute running time. The vast majority of the film takes place during Chanel's twenties, when she struggled to establish herself as a hatmaker, and then a clothing designer. The younger Chanel is played as a one-dimensional romantic heroine by Slovak actress Barbora Bobuľová.
The chief problem here is a script that tosses out all notions of Chanel as an artist, a creative powerhouse who revolutionized what women wear, in favor of prolonged investigation of her romantic affairs - first, with Etienne Balsan, and then with the "love of her life," Arthur "Boy" Capel, Balsan's one-time best friend. Capel believed in Chanel's talent and bankrolled her first proper shop in Paris. From that shop, Chanel built her empire.
The above paragraph generally describes what Coco Chanel is all about: not a talented woman who defied the odds and capitalized upon her particular genius, but a woman who was torn between two men and chose one and, boy, it's a good thing she picked the right one. This characterization insults Chanel, her legacy, and women everywhere.
It should come as no surprise that this film was directed by the likes of Christian Duguay, the dubious filmmaker from Quebec, whose most well-known picture is the Wesley Snipes shoot-em-up The Art of War (2000). It's shocking that someone charged with directing a movie biography of such a larger-than-life person would not even attempt to look below the surface of her affairs, let alone investigate the source of her capacious creativity.
In addition to all of this, the film is not even technically competent. As a multi-national production (with a lead role split between Slovak and American actresses), nearly all of the dialogue is post-synched, and some of it not particularly well. Although the film boasts excellent set design and appears to have high production values overall, there is some choppy editing, and some anachronistically-arranged tango pieces featuring electric bass and a standard drum kit (these are heard during scenes taking place in the 1910s).
The picture is presented in an enhanced 1.78:1 transfer. The transfer is awful. Although the film was released in 2008, the blacks are so cluttered with noise that they appear a smoky gray much of the time. The color palette is appealing, but the generally well-lit photography is done no justice by this sub-par transfer.
The 2.0 mix is fairly clear, with good separation. The accented performance of the lead actress (which I believe was dubbed) is often difficult to understand; this is compounded by the lack of a subtitle option.
A short featurette did not explain why the production team decided to turn the life story of such an important figure into a substandard soap opera.
Coco Chanel was a fascinating person, with a unique vision and a stubborn drive to express herself. This film, however, does not shed any light on why, or how, she turned out the way she did. Skip it.