Review by Nathan Samdahl (C+)
There are two kinds of films that take a lot for me to really enjoy: period films and biopics. Too often the former are too stodgy and bland, and the latter struggle to pick the right life moments to portray (usually resulting in an inconsistent final product). So I was more than happy to discover that the movie that I was to see - Coco Before Chanel - fell squarely within both genres. Perhaps, though, Coco could enter into the lean group of period biopics that defy the mold and find a unique, fresh way to tell an old story. Unfortunately, it did not.
While I certainly am not a fashion aficionado or really care much at all about the fashion world, I assumed that the story of one of the industry's shining moguls could sustain my interest for a couple hours. And the truth is that it could have had the film picked an interesting part of Coco's life to focus on. Committing biopic no-no Number 1, Coco Before Chanel, above and beyond its other flaws, failed to identify what is really interesting about the woman. While the story leading up to Coco's breakout in fashion was filled with trials and tribulations, it became very clear by watching the last and best scene of the film (which shows Coco putting on a stunning fashion show) that I would have much rather seen a movie about her actual career. The 15-20 years leading up to her breakout just were not that engaging. However, this did not seem to deter director Anne Fontaine.
Leading the film with a steady, subtle hand, Fontaine's approach is mostly successful given the content she had to work with, but also a bit flat. The characters never seem to overreact to anything, instead reserving their more extreme emotions for a scene that never really comes. Even when a death occurs in the film, the monotone feeling of most of the film never lifts to allow a breakout moment. Despite this, Audrey Tautou's performance is solid and effective. It was nice to see her back in her element with this material, thankfully staying far away from anything that resembles The Da Vinci Code. Her performance will probably not be remembered come award season due to the forgettable nature of the overall film, but she really does embody in every facet Coco Chanel.
Overall, I understand why this film chose to avoid TV movie status by carving out a particular niche. However, I don't understand why the filmmakers thought this particular niche would be engaging to an audience. As it stands, this pre-story lacks individuality; most of the sequences and scenes don't feel unique to a film about Coco Chanel. In fact, there are very few scenes even showing her designing skills at work. The film is worth seeing if you love fashion or Chanel, but not if you are looking for fresh filmmaking or a stimulating two hours. Sadly, It's hard to fault a biopic-period movie more than to say it ultimately picked the least interesting part of its protagonist's life to follow.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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