Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was a leading French designer and the head of a fashion empire that still bears her name. Coco Before Chanel tells her story as a young woman, before anyone knew her name. Coco (Audrey Tautou) begins her life as a determined orphan, and through an amazing journey becomes the fashion icon we all know today. This is not a biopic. The film focuses on Chanel’s early years, the years she spent discovering and working to “create” her later self. Where Coco’s success begins, is where this picture ends.
In Coco’s time, lower-class women really didn’t have many options. They could be nuns, prostitutes or take a ridiculously low paying job and hope to have enough talent to advance. Chanel started out by taking the last option. She and her sister took jobs as seamstresses and spent their nights singing in a pub and waiting for their big break. However, when she meets the rich playboy Étienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), she sees another opportunity.
She quickly attaches herself to Balsan and becomes his “kept-woman”. While living in his castle she is able to make vital connections among the upper-class as Balsan’s friends and associates pass through. Coco still doesn’t know what she wants to do in her life but she is able to lay a strong foundation for a future career. She makes hats and clothes for the ladies and eventually meets Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola), the man who will finance her first shop – and become her lover.
The film is entertaining and I enjoyed learning about Coco’s early life – although the credits clearly state that it has been “freely adapted” from Chanel’s biography. It’s a soap opera with twists and turns and even though I knew how it would end, the journey was still fun. There are some strong performances here – especially Poelvoorde who really pulls the whole film together. However, there was one thing that irked me throughout. Coco is very much presented as the “feminist” – a strong-willed, self-made woman who overcame the rigid mores of society to have a successful career. But Chanel is NOT a self-made woman at all. She would have gone nowhere without the love, support, and money of Balsan and Capel. Although I believe that she did love them, she also used them as rungs on the social ladder. To put it bluntly – Coco Chanel slept her way to the top.
What I liked most was how the movie depicted women’s fashions of the day and then contrasted them to Coco’s simple designs which have become the standard today. We get brilliant scenes at the race track, the beach, and at parties where the women are merely decorations with huge hats and feathers everywhere. They can’t even move. Chanel trashed that convention and made clothes for women that were practical and stylish. That is why she is a feminist. Not because she is a self-made woman but because she transformed the way women dressed and made clothes a source of power rather than a source of debilitation.
I can’t help but compare Coco Before Chanel to La Vie En Rose. They’re both period pieces in French about a famous French woman. Who’s next? Brigitte Bardot? La Vie En Rose is the better film but Coco is still worth a watch.
Coco Before Chanel arrives on Blu-ray with a 1080p MPEG4-AVC encode framed at 2.35:1. Coco Before Chanel’s transfer is impressive from the inside shots to the outside the fine details are great. It’s very noticeable on the garments created by the main character or in the found around in the various locales the film takes place. The colors aren’t as bright as I had hoped for being appearing somewhat washed out. Darker colors throughout the film appear to be reproduced correctly; blacks and greys are spot on. I do have to say that some of the exterior shots are incredible. There is a thin layer of grain to give it that film like feel to the movie. All in all this is a great transfer.
Coco Before Chanel arrives on Blu-ray with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio lossless track. First of all this is a very dialogue heavy film, meaning the track does its job and produces the sounds perfectly. Dialogue is clean, crisp, and clear throughout. The film doesn’t have much use for the bass, but certain scenes with a lot of horses running around will make you feel you are in the middle of it. The ambiance sounds are perfectly reproduced throughout using the rears. The film’s score is implemented throughout the film and I must say it makes great company to the rest of the audio. Another great job by Sony.
Although these special features are nothing flashy, I really felt like they added an extra dimension to the film. Just listening to the cast and crew talk, I learned so much more about Coco Chanel and the other characters in the movie. The extras put the film in a much larger context for me and helped me to understand Coco AFTER Chanel.
Walking The Red Carpet: From Los Angeles To New York – A quick look at the New York and LA premieres of the film. Director Anne Fontaine gives a nice introduction and we get to see the stars all dressed up in fashions that I’m sure would impress Coco Chanel!
Coco Before Chanel “La Rencontre” (“The Meeting”) – An interview with the director, producers, and leading cast. I learned quite a few interesting facts about the real Coco Chanel and how the writer and producers wanted her portrayed. There are also excellent insights into the real lives of some of the other characters in the film.
The Making Of Coco Before Chanel – Seven different pieces chronicling all the different aspects of making the film from the origin of the story to Anne Fontaine’s take on directing it and bringing it to life. There is so much information here that it was a bit overwhelming. However, it really added an extra dimension and this insight helped me to enjoy the film even more.
Commentary By Director and Writer Anne Fontaine – Anne Fontaine is accompanied by producer Philippe Carcassonne and editor Luc Barnier as they discuss the film. This is a great commentary as all three are very in-depth and candid about their experiences. It’s incredibly interesting to know which scenes were hard to shoot and why and why certain shots turned out like they did.
It was fascinating to see this portrait of Coco Chanel’s early life and to see how the ideas she had at such a young age permanently transformed the world of women’s fashion. Coco Before Chanel is definitely a film for those who want to know about Coco Chanel, who are fans of Audrey Tautou, or who love soapy stories. I recommend it!