Coco Chanel

The phrase “made for TV” tacked onto the front of the word “movie” can often be the kiss of death, in terms of the quality of the film. And if this hypothetical movie just so happens to be made for Lifetime, well then its safe to say that it is a goner. Original Lifetime movies are generally best taken with copious amounts of ice cream on a lazy Sunday afternoon after a bad breakup and nothing more. It is, therefore, a mystery as to how the Lifetime made for TV movie, Coco Chanel manages to be a touch better than mediocre. Coco Chanel opens as a camera sweeps an old-timey looking street and follows a crowd into the house of Chanel for a fashion show. Unfortunately, the director didn’t feel it was necessary to ground us in a year or even a country throughout the film, so I can’t tell you when and where this fashion show pops up. The camera eventually lands squarely on the figure of Shirley MacLaine, dressed in Chanel and wearing a seriously unflattering lipstick color. The fashion show is a flop but MacLaine, as Coco Chanel, brushes it off by stating “I’ve suffered rejection before, even when I was still being called Gabriele.” We then flash back to an undisclosed year when Ms. Chanel was a child named Gabriele.

We spend only two scenes getting grounded in Gabriele’s childhood before zooming ahead to her turning 18 and getting set free from the convent her father left her in. Gabriele (Barbora Bobulova) then gets a gig as a seamstress at a custom dress-making shop. The woman behind the Chanel empire is painted as bashful in her early years and hardly matches up with the brash character Shirley MacLaine plays. The story blames a harsh life that pickled the soft woman into a bitter hag, but the vast differences between the two women makes for an unsatisfying tie in at the end of the film. To make matters even more strange, young Coco has a heavy French accent that MacLaine doesn’t use. It seems like, in this film, Coco Chanel in her later years is more Shirley MacLaine than anything else.

Director Christian Duguay plays it pretty safe by telling the story in an extremely straightforward fashion. We flash back and forth between old and young Coco in a way that is hardly inventive. To discern when a flashback is about to happen, the screen goes into a grainy black and white, an apparent throwback to the older movies of the era when Coco was growing up. This tactic is pretty cheesy and is a little tell-tale mark of the “made for TV” aspect of this film. The other mark is the fact that it is painfully obvious when the commercial breaks are. It is truly a shame that the movie couldn’t be presented commercial free, as the breaks in the action are extremely distracting for the DVD viewer.

Overall, the two time-frames just don’t match up. The flashbacks are softly colored, with Coco dressed to the nines in classy Chanel get-up, while the later years are more harshly colored with the wizened and seemly cranky MacLaine dressed in old lady clothing. There isn’t a lot to prepare us for the fact that Gabriele Chanel turns into Coco Chanel. The script mostly focuses on her story as a young woman, not her passion for fashion. It is certainly a surprise when the young lady turns almost spontaneously into a powerhouse overachiever. Due to the fact that the movie was on Lifetime, I’m assuming that it is supposed to be an inspirational story about a woman who overcomes the odds. However, the film really is just a love story, nothing more.

This movie belongs wholly to Bobulova, her storyline is by far the superior one and her French accent adds a bit of authenticity that the MacLaine portion doesn’t have. MacLaine really just mucks up all the work Bobulova does to make Coco seem like the classy lady we all know she was. In fact, if it weren’t for MacLaine’s overacting this made for Lifetime movie might have even been good. She really just plays her character from Terms of Endearment dressed in Chanel suits.

There is nothing new to see here, as Duguay uses classic flashback tactics and it is painfully obvious that he was asked to make room for commercials. All in all, the movie is enjoyable, but its only enjoyable in comparison to other made for TV movies. It’s a rung above others of its kind but so far below the expected quality of theatrical releases that it never would have survived the critic’s circle. It’s a quaint little film, and if you’re obsessed with Ms. Chanel it’s a maybe-see, but I might wait for the Audrey Tautou film of the same subject that is coming out later this year. That one will most certainly be in French. This release is extremely sparse, but probably par for the course for made for TV movies on DVD. The fact that the movie was released on DVD says a lot about how proud Lifetime is of this particular film; you don’t see every Lifetime movie getting the DVD treatment. There is one extra, a behind the scenes featurette and nothing more.

Unfortunately the featurette is hardly even worth the trouble, it is about five minutes long and barely scratches the surface of the making of the movie. There is more behind the scenes footage of the film at the Lifetime website than there is on the DVD. Mostly, the featurette consists of the actors being interviewed. They don’t say much about the filming, just complain about how uncomfortable the costumes were. It is, however, quite cool to see which language is the native tongue of each of the diverse cast members. MacLaine doesn’t say much throughout, but she’s crass when she does.