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My knowledge base concerning elite fashion designer Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel is pretty much reserved to a few name-drops on various reality shows like Next Top Model and Project Runway. Frankly I wasn’t really looking to remedy this problem, but was open to an opposing opinion. Coco Before Chanel fills in some of the early years of Chanel’s life, those before her international fame. After leaving the orphanage her single father dumped her at as a little girl, Gabrielle Chanel (Audrey Tautou ) finds herself working as a singer in a bar, where she also acts as a seamstress for the other performers. Here she and her orphanage sister meet Baron Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), who takes a shine to Chanel. After her sister is married into high society Chanel takes advantage of her wealthy acquaintance and invites herself into Balsan’s house, where she develops a reputation for designing hats. Eventually she meets English businessman Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola), who complicates her life with genuine love.

Coco Before Chanel
Coco Before Chanel is a very handsome film, if not a little bleak. Writer/director Anne Fontaine doesn’t have a lot of striking drama to work from, but she elegantly expresses Chanel’s vision through the visuals, even those not specifically pertaining to clothing. We know when Chanel is inspired, and we can clearly recognize that she stands apart from her surroundings. The film garnered technical awards and praise, and this is the sole reason for those not obsessed with the ins and outs of Coco Chanel’s personal life to bother with a viewing. The acting, for better or worse, falls into the technical category, meaning there isn’t a lot of heavy-handed emoting, which will make the effort a bit of a slog for some (me included at some points). I’m a big fan of Audrey Tautou, and prefer her having more fun with a character, so Chanel’s miserable nature didn’t do a lot to endear me to the performance. I find myself more drawn to Benoît Poelvoorde more flamboyant performance, though this could have everything to do with the fact that Man Bites Dog ( C'est arrivé près de chez vous) is a personal favourite. Alessandro Nivola’s performance, on the other hand, is so restrained if verges on sleepwalking.

Trudging through almost two hours of movie without ever reaching those moments that really defined Chanel’s fame and infamy is arguable the film’s chief problem, as it creates a listless waiting game with no real end. Unfortunately, this ‘nothing really happens’ aspect is kind of the point of the film. It’s a ‘prequel’ of sorts. There are already several films about Chanel’s life, and apparently more on the horizon (perhaps Elizabeth: The Golden Age-like follow-ups to this film?), so Fontaine was only looking to fill in only the pre-fame stuff, which is ultimately the least interesting part of a fascinating life (so says the Wikipedia article at least, again, I didn’t really know anything about Chanel going into the film). It’s baffling how common this real life story is, as if everyone brought up an orphan into successful creative life has had stories told about them ad nauseum (rich aristocracy is insipid, hard work is paramount, etc.). Perhaps revealing too much about my personal taste in film (or lack thereof, in this case) Chanel’s early story reminds me of Jess Franco’s trashy/elegant sex dramas, though the PG-13 rating dictates that we cut away before the randy nature of the inelegant elite turns to smut.

Coco Before Chanel


Did you guys know that France was gloomy and overcast? Well it is. All the time, apparently. This 1080p transfer is sure to let us know incase we forgot. This is the Saving Private Ryan of fashion biographies. When outside the image is quite white and soft, while indoors its dark and gritty. We’re not talking a film noir production here, but there’s a definite lack of light during the yellowed interiors. The contrast levels are usually pretty extreme, but sharpness isn’t quite a paramount issue. The choice focus tends to be relatively shallow, and is pulled slowly enough to create inconsistencies. Details here are more impressive in their quantity and clarity rather than their utter sharpness. Middle-ground wardrobe, set decoration and other production design are the major impressive elements, though close-up facial and hair details are far from inadequate. The colours are never particularly vibrant unless Fontaine really intends us to notice something, but being a costume drama, in the most literal sense, there are enough intended highlights freckled throughout the production. Blacks are a huge plus. These are deep and solid without blobbing or bleeding.

Coco Before Chanel


Coco Before Chanel isn’t an entirely old fashion production, but the sound design does little to bring attention to this acceptable and error free DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Occasionally the sounds of a small interior crowd, minor street noise, or a nice warm piano will eek through the stereo and rear channels, but there aren’t any big, standout audio moments. Even horse races are cut short before they can tear out into any particular aural glory. The hide and seek scene is the closest we get to real DTS glory. The dialogue and centered incidental effects are very natural and warm, so there’s not reason to complain. The score is equally unassuming, weaving into the mix with soft, mournful melodies that rarely take any real control of the LFE channel.

Coco Before Chanel


The extras begin with a commentary from writer/director Anne Fontaine, producer Philippe Carcassonne and editor Luc Barnier, in French with English subtitles. This is a mixed effort, occasionally delving into interesting tales of structuring the story and crafting the technical aspects, but often the discussing devolves into bland technical description. When personality is injected into the mix the track really picks up, as the participants have a warm report, but there’s just as much congratulatory speak. I could’ve also done with a little more discussion concerning the real Coco Chanel. In the end a good, but easily missable track.

‘The Making of Coco Before Chanel’ (46:10, SD) isn’t quite a full bodied documentary look at the process, but in seven parts, and covering most of the important subject, it’s certainly more informative than and EPK. The various chapters cover the project’s origins, pre-production, casting, production and costume design, location shooting, character building, special effects and direction. Everything is set to raw set footage, cast and crew interviews, and scenes from the film. ‘ Coco Before Chanel: The Meeting’ (18:20, SD) is the EPK, featuring more flamboyant interviews that say very little. ‘Walking the Red Carpet: From Los Angeles to New York’ (7:50, HD) is a collection of footage from the film’s two American premieres. Missing from the extras is any real historical look at Chanel. Things finish out with a trailer, and trailers for other Sony Blu-ray releases.

Coco Before Chanel


Coco Before Chanel is pretty much exactly what I expected based on the trailers and my general interest in the subject matter. I was rooting from a transcending experience, but this is a simple story told in an unassuming manner. Fans of actors Audrey Tautou and Benoît Poelvoorde should be reasonably happy, as should those with an insatiable appetite for Chanel. The rest of us can be satisfied by the film’s classy look. The Blu-ray is light on extras, especially those that would fill in the historical markers for us laymen, and the audio design is pretty unassuming, but the video quality perfectly captures the intended look.

Reviewer Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.