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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Chanel' turns to window dressing

September 13, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Television Critic

There may come a time when "Lifetime movie" as a shorthand for sentimental, feisty-gal-sobfest is stricken from the lexicon. But that day is not today.

Instead, today we consider "Coco Chanel," an original movie event premiering tonight that has such high production value and so little artistic value that a viewer may find herself at times whimpering in disbelief.

Three seemingly endless hours long, "Coco Chanel" still manages to omit the most celebrated decades (and a scandalous affair with a German officer during World War II) because it is much more interested in a tedious account of Chanel's early love life. A little whitewashing is forgivable in a biopic, but to make a movie about the most influential figure in fashion history in which she spends more time moping around about her boyfriends than she does designing clothes is infuriating. The contestants on "Project Runway" are taken more seriously as artists than Chanel is here.

Mercifully, it is a gorgeously shot film, with hats to die for, period opulence and poverty well-depicted and, eventually, all those fabulous Chanel suits. For those who found the Oscar-winning film "La Vie en Rose" far too depressing (not to mention French), there may be enjoyment in this Americanized tale of similar pathos. Like singer Edith Piaf, Chanel suffered the early death of her mother, an impoverished childhood, father-abandonment, hardscrabble young adulthood and a few unwise romantic choices, but with a happier outcome. Unlike Piaf, an alcoholic and drug addict who died at 48, Chanel lived to the ripe old age of 87. She never stopped working and experienced a postwar renaissance when she was 69.

This is where "Coco Chanel" opens. Played by the venerable Shirley MacLaine, the elderly designer is staging a comeback show. (Her comeback actually followed an exile in Switzerland; Paris never forgave her for having an affair with an occupying officer. This is never mentioned.) As her glad-handing business partner, Marc Bouchier (a surprisingly insufferable Malcolm McDowell), watches in horror, it bombs.

Coco is unfazed; she is, she says through a plume of cigarette smoke, used to rejection. (Cue flashback to tubercular mother, deadbeat father, etc.) To MacLaines' everlasting credit, she does not attempt an accent, assuming, accurately, that at this stage in her career she is naturally imperious enough to seem French without sounding like it.

But although it's MacLaine's face that's selling the film, she is bafflingly underused, both logistically and emotionally. The vast majority of the film is set in flashback and stars newcomer Barbora Bobulova as young Gabrielle Chanel.

Bobulova is lovely and spirited but apparently incapable of summoning her subject's artistic depth or even her chicness -- looking good in breeches when breeches simply weren't worn is not the same as playing the woman who would think to wear them. MacLaine is certainly capable of conjuring vast reservoirs of emotion and experience, but even she seems strangely reined in, as if director Christian Duguay, fearful of playing Chanel as a caricature, went too far the other way.

Chanel begins her career as an insightful seamstress then gets sidetracked in a romance that should have been over and done with in three scenes. Instead, it occupies close to an hour of the movie.

Her revolutionary fashion sense, on the other hand, is summed up in a line or two having to do with wanting clothes to be more comfortable and jersey going cheap during World War I. Now, I'm no fashionista but I'm pretty sure it was a bit more complicated than that.

The best scenes in the movie occur in her store and studio, but it seems a bit of a rip-off that we don't get to see much of Chanel at the height of her art and fame. What satisfaction there is comes from the elder Chanel, the one who unsentimentally insists on the importance and transcendence of the work.

That's the woman who was worth a movie; that's the woman who could have broken the Lifetime mold.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Coco Chanel'

Where: Lifetime

When: 8 p.m. today

Rating: Not rated

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