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Coco Before Chanel

Sony Pictures // PG-13 // February 16, 2010
List Price: $34.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted February 13, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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Gabrielle Chanel -- though you know her better as 'Coco' -- redefined the face of fashion in the 20th century. Women throughout the early years of her life were still bound in impossibly tight corsets...wore ornate hats that prevented them from turning their heads at all. Women's bodies were expected be molded to best suit their wardrobe -- bright, lacy, and pointlessly flowery -- rather than the other way around. Chanel tossed that outmoded concept aside. Championing clothing that was simpler and more functional, Chanel empowered women to dress for themselves rather than march in lockstep with someone else's perception of femininity, and her determination and fashionable eye cemented herself as one of the most influential women of the last century.

Coco Before Chanel, meanwhile, strips away virtually every last compelling aspect about her life, transforming a defiant, determined woman into a character indistinguishable from the heroines in any of a dozen other costume romances. As the filmmakers delight in pointing out in the disc's extras, this isn't a biography about the life and death of Coco Chanel. No, as its title suggests, Coco Before Chanel focuses instead on the years before Chanel so much as opened up her first shop. Chanel's skill and unconventional taste in fashion run throughout the film but are used simply for color...for splashes of personality...more than anything else. The Chanel of legend is only glimpsed in passing in the film's final moments, and even then it's far more fascinated with wrapping up the dangling romantic subplots established earlier in the film. Change a couple of names and snip out a few minutes of footage, and there would be
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nothing left to suggest that Audrey Tautou is standing in for Coco Chanel in the first place.

Though the makers of Coco Before Chanel have successfully avoided churning out a biopic, what they've managed to make instead is a lifeless, formulaic costume drama. Dreaming of stardom as an actress or singer, Gabrielle Chanel (Audrey Tautou) worms her way out from an obscure nightclub act and into the arms of a wealthy, boorish drunk (BenoƮt Poelvoorde). To avoid returning penniless to an empty apartment, Chanel charges headlong into the role of mistress, a part neither she nor her benefactor want her to play. As this is a standard issue costume romance, chances are you know the turns the story takes from here. Chanel is the spirited heroine who isn't quite a comfortable fit in high society, wanting to make her own fortune rather than while away her life as a kept woman. Balsan, a womanizer with an infamously short attention span, treats her like a disposable commodity but soon falls for her just the same. Then there's Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola), a charming Brit who made a success of himself. He's immediately infatuated with Chanel -- and vice versa -- and yet the two of them can never truly be together.

Yes, we do periodically catch glimpses at the life Chanel would go on to lead; she sees fishermen casting nets into the ocean, for instance, and is later seen wearing a white and blue striped shirt of her own design. By and large, though, Coco Before Chanel is a rather ordinary love triangle, playing the same familiar notes of passion, heartbreak, and tragedy precisely where you'd expect them to fall. How strange it is that a film about a woman so legendarily non-comformist would have so little to set it apart from much of anything else. Even viewed strictly as a romance, the film's detached, clinical, and almost emotionless approach fails to engage. Coco Before Chanel is able to coast somewhat on the charms of its three leads -- no small feat, considering that the film sets out to stomp on anything the least bit charming about Tautou -- but they don't do much to prop up this competent yet entirely forgettable costume drama. Rent It.

Immaculately detailed and boasting an impressive sense of depth and dimensionality, I found myself floored by the presentation of Coco Before Chanel's opening sequence. That initial promise quickly fades into something much more ordinary, though. The cinematography throughout the remainder of the film is a touch soft -- not wholly surprising considering its anamorphic origins -- and though definition and detail are reasonably robust, neither stand out as particularly remarkable either. Coco Before Chanel clings to the sort of dingy, muted palette that period pieces are too frequently saddled with these days, and the lackluster black levels leave the film looking flat and lifeless. There's no doubt in my mind that this is a deliberate part of Coco Before Chanel's cinematography, though, and it shouldn't be considered a misstep with this Blu-ray disc. On a technical level, there's little room for complaint: no trace of compression artifacting, no artificial ringing around high-contrast edges, no wear or speckling whatsoever, and no smearing or smudging from excessive digital noise reduction.

Coco Before Chanel certainly takes advantage of the additional resolution that Blu-ray has to offer, but even though it doesn't disappoint, there's still something terribly ordinary about this 1080p presentation. Much like the movie itself, its release on Blu-ray is fine but forgettable. The film's AVC encode spans both layers of this BD-50 disc, and the image is letterboxed to preserve its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1.

Coco Before Chanel's soundtrack hits all of the right bullet points -- the film is correctly presented in its original French, it's offered here in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio, and it's a 24-bit track to boot -- but it too comes across as bland and ordinary. The surrounds do flesh out a fair amount of atmosphere: diners in a bustling restaurant, a chatty crowd passing through the lobby after a theatre performance, a drunken round of hide-and-seek, and the clatter of hooves as Balsan and Chanel go riding. Still, these attempts at directionality rarely feel immersive, and the mix is overwhelmingly rooted front and center. Fidelity and clarity are adequate but not especially noteworthy. Coco Before Chanel doesn't offer many opportunities for subwoofer reinforcement, although one gallop in particular and a haunting realization near the end do coax some modest activity in the lower frequencies. I certainly don't want to sound as if I have unrealistic expectations and had been keeping my fingers crossed for some sort of smolderingly intense sonic experience, but even considering its understated approach, Coco Before Chanel's lossless soundtrack doesn't manage to make much of an impression.

Commentary aside, there are no dubs, downmixes, or alternate soundtracks on this Blu-ray disc. Optional English subtitles are enabled by default, and no other subtitle streams -- not even captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing -- have been made available here. Owners of constant image height projection rigs should note that the subtitles are anchored primarily in the lower letterboxing bar.

  • Walking the Red Carpet: From Los Angeles to New York (8 min.; HD):
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    The only high definition featurette on this Blu-ray disc is a stroll down the red carpet with writer/director Anne Fontaine and her cast. They lob out a few quick soundbites leading up to each coast's premiere, and the remainder of this extra is devoted to the personable series of introductions in front of the silver screen in New York.

  • Coco Before Chanel: The Meeting (18 min.; SD): Presumably included here purely for the sake of completion, there's little reason to bother giving "The Meeting" a look. It's a largely promotional featurette, preferring to summarize the characters and events featured throughout the film rather than truly exploring them, and it's littered with excerpts from Coco Before Chanel as punctuation. There are some decent notes about composite characters standing in for Chanel's friends and family as well as a couple of brief comments about the later years of the designer's life, but every other highlight is also covered elsewhere on this disc...often repeatedly.

  • The Making of Coco Before Chanel (46 min.; SD): Divided into several parts, "The Making of Coco Before Chanel" is easily the centerpiece of the extras on this Blu-ray disc. It starts by delving into the genesis of a project that didn't strike Anne Fontaine as being particularly cinematic, and she notes how the inspiration drawn from films like The Motorcycle Diaries turned her away from wanting to helm a traditional biopic. The featurette also explores the costume design and a visual approach mirroring Chanel's own preference for the understated and functional. Discussions of the cast's performances and the various character arcs dominate much of the remaining runtime. Infused with quite a bit of candid footage from the set, "The Making of Coco Before Chanel" is a considerably above-average behind the scenes piece and the most easily recommended of the extras on this Blu-ray disc.

  • Audio Commentary: Writer/director Anne Fontaine is joined by editor Luc Barnier and producer Philippe Carcassonne for Coco Before Chanel's commentary track, conducted here in its original French with English subtitles. Though Fontaine is certainly the dominant presence in this conversation, having Barnier in tow ensures that the commentary spends a considerable amount of time focusing on the construction of the film in the editing room, and that's a topic of particular interest to me. I
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    enjoy hearing about the challenges behind filming a scene as much as anyone, but I find it equally fascinating to learn about the process of molding that raw footage into a finished product...the alternate ideas briefly mulled over, cleverly repurposing material intended for a different scene, and the ingenuity behind certain key transitions.

    Among the other highlights are the filmmakers rolling their eyes at the censors because of Chanel's constant smoking, it winding up being for the best that a scene with Chanel fishing for shark or tuna was drastically reworked, many viewers being caught off-guard by the revelation that Coco Chanel wasn't born into the upper crust of society, and Audrey Tautou's willingness to subject herself to soul-crushingly low temperatures in flimsy clothing so long as she wouldn't have to go into work sick the following day. From noting some of the clever camerawork to Tautou's own skills as a seamstress, there's plenty of interest here to warrant a listen from admirers of the film.

    Somewhat distractingly, the dialogue from Coco Before Chanel is subtitled whenever the three speakers in the commentary are silent.

  • Trailer (2 min.; HD): Rounding out the extras is a high definition theatrical trailer. A slew of HD plugs for other Sony releases have also been included.

Coco Before Chanel is a BD Live-enabled disc, although whatever functionality may be waiting in the wings online has yet to be unveiled. I wouldn't hold out hope for anything more than the usual promotional portal, though.

The Final Word
It's mentioned repeatedly throughout the extras on Coco Before Chanel that they sought to make a film that represented a slice of Gabrielle Chanel's life. The filmmakers may have succeeded in their goal of avoiding making just another biopic, but in the process, they've instead hammered out just another costume drama. Coco Before Chanel is a competently crafted film, but unlike the fashion icon who lent the movie its title, it's does little to distinguish itself from the rest of the crowd and is entirely forgettable. Rent It.
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