This is the story of a young French woman at the dawn of the 20th century. A young woman who was poor, without family or education, but who nevertheless transformed the promise of an ordinary life into a dazzling destiny. This is the story of Coco Chanel.
She turned her natural talent as a dressmaker into a weapon to cast off her chains, creating clothing that became a symbol of independence as well as elegance; she invented a style which not only outshone all other styles, but remains in fashion a century later. While the feminist movement was taking its first uncertain steps, she had the intuition that women could be attractive to men while freeing themselves from their dominance. She loved and was loved in return but remained a free spirit in the heart of an era that considered love and freedom contradictory terms.
For a woman who died in 1971, Coco Chanel has had a surprising second wind over the last couple years. Of course, the Chanel empire remains a powerhouse in the fashion industry. Even so, the sudden and simultaneous interest focused on the designer by movie producers is curious, to say the least. Certainly, Chanel was an important and influential enough figure in the 20th Century to merit a biopic. One was due eventually. But three, all at once? That seems like overkill.
In late 2008, the Lifetime cable network aired a TV movie simply titled 'Coco Chanel', with Shirley MacLaine as the elder woman looking back on her life. Then in 2009, not one but two theatrical features were produced in France. 'Chanel Coco & Igor Stravinsky' looks at her affair with the famous composer during her mid-30s. Perhaps the most high profile of these projects is the lavish period piece 'Coco avant Chanel' ('Coco Before Chanel'), directed by actress-turned-filmmaker Anne Fontaine and starring the incomparable Audrey Tautou.
As can be gleaned from the title, 'Coco Before Chanel' turns its lens toward the woman's early years, before she became the icon that the world remembers. The movie begins with a 10-year-old Gabrielle (before there was even a "Coco") being deposited at an orphanage by a father who will never visit again. We then jump forward to her early 20s to find the girl (now played by Tautou) working as a seamstress by day and a cabaret singer by night. She sews out of necessity to pay the bills, but dreams of fame and fortune as a singer. It's here that she's given the nickname "Coco" by wealthy patron Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde). Although she finds him boorish and has cynical views on love, Coco becomes Balsan's mistress. It's a relationship of convenience, not love.
During her time living at Balsan's estate, Coco's distaste for the frivolity of women's clothing grows. She's strong-willed and pig-headed. She won't ride horses sidesaddle like a proper lady should, refuses to wear corsets, and begins to repurpose men's clothes to suit her own personal style. Even if she may not have set out to push any sort of feminist agenda, at the time, the simple act of dressing differently than everyone else was scandalous.
Coco has no ambitions to be a fashion designer, but her hats catch the eye of actress Emilienne d'Alençon (Emmanuelle Devos), who encourages her to open a shop and establish her independence. Meanwhile, through Balsan, she meets Englishman Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola), and experiences feelings of love for the first time. But Boy has secrets that prevent him from being marriageable material, and Balsan may not be as bad as he seemed after all.
And, well, that's pretty much it for this chapter in Chanel's life. The movie ends with a trite conclusion that sets Gabrielle on her path to becoming the Coco Chanel who would revolutionize women's fashion.
'Coco Before Chanel' is a stately, handsomely-mounted biopic with impeccable period production values. Fontaine subtly layers in countless visual references in the early parts of the story that will inform Chanel's later design aesthetic. The nuns' black robes at the orphanage, for example, will eventually play a role in the creation of the first Little Black Dress. Throughout her life, Coco finds inspiration in unconventional places. If nothing else, the director effectively demonstrates the power of fashion to make a difference in a woman's life. Chanel's simple elegance sets her apart from the gaudy crowd, and marks her as a cultural innovator that would help to change modern perceptions of the gender. When the LBD makes its first appearance, it's a shocking revelation in the midst of so much old-fashioned prissy pomposity. It immediately identifies Chanel as a truly modern woman breaking free from the previous century.
On the other hand, the movie was widely promoted as having had access to the official Chanel Archives for its costumes. That really only comes into play for one brief montage at the very end. The majority of the movie takes place during a period where Coco dressed quite frumpily as she struggled to define herself. Fashionistas will likely find that disappointing.
The gorgeous and talented Tautou is, at least technically, very good in the role. Her performance captures the aloof detachment that Chanel was famous for. Her icy, analytical stares pierce right through everyone around her. Unfortunately, her coldness forces the audience to stand back, and rarely invites them in to her emotional development. We're meant to believe that a last-act tragedy forces Coco to build an emotional wall to protect herself from the world. But frankly, she was never very warm to begin with.
The biggest problem is that there just isn't a lot of story here. Coco Chanel actually led a pretty fascinating life. During World War II, she was convicted of war crimes for her affair with a Nazi spy and her alleged role in a plot to gain access to Winston Churchill. She was only saved by intervention from the British royal family. Over the years, she had affairs with many of the most important men of her era. This movie never addresses any of that. Instead, all we get is a simple rags-to-riches tale and a love triangle. There's nothing in the picture that ever challenges popular perception of the woman or the official (whitewashed) story as the House of Chanel wants us to see it.
The entirety of 'Coco Before Chanel' would make a decent 15-minute prologue to a better, more encompassing movie about Coco's Chanel's whole life. In attempting to show us the circumstances that led the woman to become an icon, it focuses on too specific a slice of her life, before the most fascinating parts of the story ever take place. The film isn't terrible by any means. It held my interest. But it's too safe and stodgy, and is a much lesser movie that it could (and should) have been.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Coco Before Chanel' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The disc has been authored with three forced trailers before the main menu that must be skipped individually.
'Coco Before Chanel' has nice photography to suit its production values, but it's rarely a flashy picture. The movie goes for a more understated period atmosphere. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is a little softish on the whole. Yet it exhibits fairly good detail, enough to reveal texture and stitching in the costumes. Light film grain seems to be properly resolved without any Digital Noise Reduction problems. Nor has the 2.35:1 image been artificially sharpened.
Colors are naturalistic. They appear accurate, though rarely pop off the screen. The picture's most disappointing aspect is the flat contrast range. Blacks never run deep, and shadows are often milky. This leaves the movie with a drab, two-dimensional appearance. Whether that's a photographic attribute or a transfer issue, I can't say for certain. It doesn't look bad, per se, but also doesn't have the depth or dimensionality of the most impressive-looking high-def transfers
The French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is likewise not very showy. Everything is crisp and clear enough, for what it needs to be. Dialogue is well prioritized. The gentle score exhibits nice musical warmth. However, the dynamic range never extends very far to either the higher or lower frequencies. Not that it's supposed to, of course. Forget about noticeable bass activity. This just isn't that type of movie. The surround channels are mostly reserved for faint musical envelopment. Discrete directional effects are rarely, if ever, employed.
Optional English subtitles are positioned half-in/half-out of the letterboxed movie image, which will be problematic for 2.35:1 Constant Image Height projection viewers.
The Blu-ray shares all of its bonus features with the comparable DVD edition. Annoyingly, most of these features are in French, but the disc defaults to playback without subtitles. You must manually turn the subtitles on for each piece.
I'll watch any movie with Audrey Tautou. I'm an easy mark in that regard. She seems to be well-cast here as the iconic Coco Chanel, and indeed delivers a strong performance. Unfortunately, as a movie, 'Coco Before Chanel' lacks the spark of inspiration that its subject was famous for. The film is also entirely devoted to perhaps the least interesting time in Coco Chanel's long and complicated life. Even my wife, who was looking forward to a two-hour fashion parade, found it rather dull and disappointing.
The Blu-ray looks and sounds decent enough. Some of the bonus features are worth a watch. The disc merits a rental for those interested in the subject matter. I have a harder time recommending a purchase.