Coco Before Chanel tells the story of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, who beganher life as a headstrong orphan, and through an extraordinary personal journeyovercame her impoverished childhood and defied societal convention to become a legendary couturier who embodied the modern woman and becamea timeless symbol of success, freedom and style. The problem, though, is that there’s not an ounce of honest dynamism in this stuffy biopic, and so it plays out on a purely textual level, as a yawning exercise in heritage cinema, with a slight spritz of self-congratulatory, up-with-gender promotion.
Audrey Tautou stars as Coco, who as a designer ahead of her time eschewed corsets and derided the fashionable “meringues” of women’s headwear as akin to “being in a pastry shop.” She journeys from amundane seamstress job to boisterous cabarets to the opulent Frenchcountryside, possessing little more than her unwavering determination,unique style and visionary talent. Her headstrong nature eventually puts her somewhat at odds with her more pragmatic sister Adrienne (Marie Gillain), and also causes complications with a pair of would-be suitors, Etienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) and Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola).
Coco Before Chanel is directed by Anne Fontaine (The Girl From Monaco, In His Hands), from ascreenplay by she and Camille Fontaine, with the collaboration ofDangerous Liaisons scribe Christopher Hampton. It’s based loosely on the book Chanel and Her World: Friends, Fashion and Fame by author Edmonde Charles-Roux, the former editor-in-chief of French Vogue, so there’s plenty of an exhaustive sense of the background fashion detail. The movie was also selected to close the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, which is partially a case of boosterism, to be sure, but also an indication of just how innately nationalistic this story is, despite Chanel’s stature in the fashion world.
Part of the chief problem is evident in the title, which tips the hand of the film’s area of focus. In portraying theformative years of Chanel’s life, only the years Chanel spent discoveringand inventing herself before she became the most famous fashion designer of the 20th century, the movie robs itself of any real, legitimate chance at connecting with audiences for whom her name means nothing — or at least nothing outside of the vague recollection of some perfume ad postcards tumbling out of a magazine at a newsstand. All the accouterments are just so — from a lush score by two-time Academy Award nominee Alexandre Desplat and gauzy yet involving cinematography from Christophe Beaucarne to equally detailed production design work from Olivier Radot and exacting costumes by Catherine Leterrier — yet the screenplay is awfully academic, and formal. There is the sense that Coco uses fashion as an emotional shield, but Fontaine constructs a wall that treats personal desire and professional ambition as separate, discrete things.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, Coco Before Chanel comes to DVD presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a static menu screen divided into 28 chapters. An audio commentary track with Fontaine anchors the bonus materials, but a superlative, seven-part, subtitled making-of documentary, running 46 minutes, is like manna from heaven for those who want to soak up all the details surrounding in particular the movie’s sumptuous costumes and production design. A separate 18-minute featurette, subtitled “La Rencontre (The Meeting),” includes chats with Tautou, her director, and her costars; Fontaine places Chanel tied alongside Edith Piaf in the canon of famous Frenchwomen, while Poelvoorde says she made huge contributions to “the well-being of generations of French [females].” Somewhat appropriately for such a fashion-centric title, there’s also an eight-minute featurette which tracks the movie’s red carpet premieres, from Los Angeles to New York and in between. Rounding things out are a gallery of preview trailers for Paris 36, I’ve Loved You So Long, Every Little Step, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and other Sony home video titles. To purchase DVD via Amazon, click here. C- (Movie) A- (Disc)