A picture is worth a thousand words, so they say, and one image in Coco Before Chanel effectively sums up the whole 110 minutes. The film's true-life heroine, fashion-designer-to-be Coco Chanel, lies in dead leaves, her head resting at the base of a green, mossy tree. Director Anne Fontaine sees Chanel as fertile imagination personified amid a dead landscape, a genius among intellectual plebeians. Unfortunately, the film surrounding the image lacks the freshness and vitality Fontaine ascribes to her heroine; enter knowing nothing about Coco Chanel, and you'll exit wondering why you bothered to find out.
Those who already belong to the bedazzled cult of Coco Chanel are clearly the target audience for Coco Before Chanel, the only film bio officially approved by the house that Coco built. Adapted by Fontaine and her sister Camille (with an assist from Christopher Hampton) from Edmonde Charles-Roux's book Chanel and Her World, Coco Before Chanel goes all the way back to the orphanage where Gabrielle Chanel was left by her father. Leaping ahead to her struggling days as a Parisian seamstress and cabaret singer, the film depicts Gabrielle (Audrey Tautou) and her sister (Marie Gillain) singing the novelty ditty "Who's Seen Coco in the Trocadero" and Gabrielle being dubbed Coco by a soldier admiring "those dark little eyes."
Nothing if not shrewd, Coco understands that she must hitch her star to a man to get anywhere in 1908 Paris. She sets her sights on Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), a millionaire playboy with a country estate. The film doesn't shy from Coco's shameless self-invention—her willingness sexually to exploit herself to penetrate high society—and Fontaine sees the later intrusion of a genuine romantic interest as enough drama to justify the film. Alessandro Nivola plays the presumable love of Chanel's life, "Boy" Capel, the suave exception among the buffoonish idle riche surrounding Balsan and his kept woman. In Poelvoorde's hands, Balsan proves the most captivating figure, a mostly good-humored sap who allows himself to be used as long as Coco deems him fit for the purpose.
Fontaine designs her soft account to precede the most interesting periods of Chanel's life, but the fatal flaw is in the lugubrious treatment. If Chanel's early years were really this boring, why bother with them? (And if the truth were a priority, why compress Chanel's siblings into a fabricated composite?) The film lightly touches on what made Chanel important—her groundbreaking liberation of women from constricting fashions—but avoids her Nazi-collaborationist disgrace (skipping over it for a glimpse of Chanel in her fashionable prime). Tautou turns in a solid but sullen performance as Chanel, and though the film is prettily photographed, it's also a rather dull and unchallenging account of one woman's ambitious social climb in a man's world.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
Coco Before Chanel gets a stellar transfer from Sony on hi-def Blu-ray. Film-like and richly detailed, the picture here perfectly recreates that seen in theaters. Color is accurate, and fine textures leap off the screen; the black level runs a hint brighter than would seem ideal, but otherwise it's a perfect rendering. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is also excellent, with dialogue being the priority but a nice show of immersive ambience and well-handled music completing the aural effect.
A commentary with writer/director Anne Fontaine, producer Philippe Carcassonne, and editor Luc Barnier offers a wealth of detail about the film, Chanel, and Tautou.
"The Making of Coco Before Chanel" (46:12, SD) is a highly detailed behind-the-scenes doc with tons of set footage and interviews with Fontaine, screenwriter Camille Fontaine, producer Caroline Benjo, producer Carole Scotta, Audrey Tautou, costume designer Catherine Leterrier, composer Alexandre Desplat, Emmanuelle Devos, Marie Gillain, Benoit Poelvoorde, production designer Olivier Radot, Alessandro Nivola, and director of photography Christophe Beaucarne.
"Coco Before Chanel: The Meeting" (18:17, SD) is a series of formal interviews from a press junket. Fontaine, Tautou, Poelvoorde, Devos, and Gillain participate.
"Walking the Red Carpet: From Los Angeles to New York" (7:49, HD) showcases red carpet interviews and screening comments from Tautou, Fontaine, Nivola, and Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker.
Last up is the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:02, HD).
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