Fashion is in fashion all over TV these days, but Lifetime’s international co-production “Coco Chanel” has less to do with haute couture than high melodrama, recounting a life story so insanely frothy and pulpy that those who don’t cry will be laughing their eyelashes off. Shirley MacLaine essentially drops by for a few minutes to add an American imprimatur to this gauzy tale starring Slovakian actress Barbora Bobulova. One can see why Lifetime would be drawn to the subject matter, but on a 1-to-10 scale, give “Chanel” a No. 5.
Although this three-hour vidpic gets out well ahead of a planned Chanel biopic Warner Bros. will release, the story does little to demonstrate how young Coco funneled her poor taste in men into a designing empire. Moreover, the narrow emphasis on the misguided romances that hardened her heart eclipses the exploration of professional development, rendering the narrative not so much a biography as just another cliched wartime romance.
The last European figure to receive this sort of lavish biopictreatment was the pope, but he never made people look or smell prettier. “Freely inspired” by Chanel’s life, the movie opens in 1954, as the aging Coco (MacLaine) grapples with doubt about her career. The story then flashes back four decades, where her younger self (Bobulova) is pawned off on a gruff dressmaker as a seamstress.
The wide-eyed girl soon meets a dashing young nobleman/soldier, Etienne (Sagamore Stevenin), who, following a brief courtship, scandalously whisks her off to his villa. Almost out of boredom, Coco begins designing hats, but she still finds time to fall for Etienne’s equally dashing if slightly more intellectual friend, Boy (Olivier Sitruk).
Beyond this romantic triangle, it’s pretty clear the good times can’t last. For starters, World War I will intervene, and before that brings them down several pegs, Europe’s aristocratic snobs deride Coco’s humble roots.
In a script credited to four writers and directed by Christian Duguay, much greeting-card-level dialogue ensues. Etienne: “I never said I would marry you!” Boy: “We’re the same, you and I. We’re one.” Ultimately, it all leads to the elder Coco shouting, “The only person I owe gratitude is me!” to her patient business partner (Malcolm McDowell, used equally sparingly).
Perhaps appropriately, the period trappings and costumes are impeccable, part of a miniseries that weaves six production logos into its hemline — suggesting more commerce than art in its conception.
Chanel has already inspired a musical (Katharine Hepburn played her onstage), and the lovely Bobulova does what she can. Still, when the older Coco imperiously rips fabric off dresses to brighten them up, you kind of wish she’d been around to do the same thing with the screenplay.