It’s strange, but my biggest problem with COCO BEFORE CHANEL is clearly expressed in the title of the film; this is about Coco Chanel before she started her Chanel empire. As we’re following Gabrielle (Coco) from her early days at an orphanage to her days in Paris, I kept wondering how exactly she started, or was going to start, her huge fashion empire. I appreciated the love stories and the political commentary on social classes in France, but I was most interested in how this timid, mild mannered woman became one of the most famous fashion icons in history. If you’re not familiar with Audrey Tautou, then you’re missing out on one of the best actresses of our generation. She’s captivating as Coco and I was impressed she was able to downplay her cuteness and peppiness for the character.
We meet up with Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel at a very young age as her father drops her and her sister off at an orphanage. The early scene is brief, but it sets the standard that Coco is alone and probably always will be. We fast forward to a point where she and her sister are singing and dancing in a local club in a small French town. This is where the film starts diving too far into the social structure that was prevalent in France at the time. She and her sister couldn’t marry wealthy because back then; wealthy had to marry wealthy. But that didn’t stop Coco from trying to break into that world and perhaps it inspired her to work harder and make something of herself.
When not focused on Coco’s frustration with the social rules of the time, the film is really centered on her relationship with two men; Entienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde) and Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola). Entienne is the man that helps Coco break into the higher social class, while Arthur is her true love. There are environmental factors, and her own ambition, that prevent her from being with either and the film attempts to paint Coco as a wounded heart that struggles to find happiness. I had issues with that because her unhappy love life was partly due to her own ambition and desire to make it on her own. Many of us have suffered similar fates by following our dreams or ambition and it’s a sacrifice we have to make. So I felt the emotions that director Anne Fontaine tried to elicit from that sacrifice were forced and I found myself unsympathetic to Coco’s plight.
But the biggest issue is that the film stops right before it gets interesting. We barely get a glimpse of Coco in true form and aside from a montage of her inspecting models on their way to a fashion show, we don’t get any look at Coco the icon. I realize the point was to tell the story of her before her elite status, but I still have no idea how she started her fashion line and how she built it into an empire. I would have liked to see less of her relationship with Balsan and more of her as a businesswoman.
I would really like to recommend the film to fashion fans, but there’s very little fashion in the film. We get to see Coco wear some variations of her famous outfits throughout the film, but the story is really about her relationship with two different men. Unfortunately, I couldn’t connect with her relationships and found myself wanting to learn more about Coco Chanel and not Coco before Chanel.
Video: The 2.35:1 widescreen video presentation is incredible and I often times felt like I was in a theater. The colors weren’t as vibrant as some Blu-ray fans are used to, but the transfer was still impressive.
Audio: The French 5.1 DTS-HD was also nice, but this is a dialogue-heavy movie, so it wasn’t used to its full capacity.
Commentary with Anne Fontaine, Philippe Carcassonne and Luc Barnier: I’m grateful for every commentary track, but reading subtitles from three commentators is tiring and it’s very hard to decipher who says what. But once you get past that, the three participants give a very detailed and informative commentary on virtually every aspect of filmmaking. I would have liked to hear more about their creative decisions with the script and story, but I did enjoy this.
Walking the Red Carpet: From Los Angeles to New York (7:50): It looks like they went all out for the premieres of the film and this featurette gives you a glimpse at the two premieres. There wasn’t much to this, but it was a nice, short featurette and was okay for what it was.
Coco Before Chanel “The Meeting” (18:18): I wanted a more in-depth look at who Coco really was, with maybe some interviews from people that knew her or worked with/for her. Instead, this was the closest we came and although enjoyable, I felt this to be a bit of a letdown. The cast and crew talk about the woman, but we didn’t get much insight.
The Making of Coco Before Chanel (46:48): This actually seven separate featurettes, each covering a specific aspect of the film. They’re all pretty consistent with what you expect in making-of featurettes; plenty of interviews and compliments about the people involved. It did show a lot of behind the scenes footage, which was nice.