This gauzy portrait of the grande dame who reinvented women’s fashion is a little long on eye-rolling exposition: Plenty of characters tell their life stories to people who already know them well. In context, though, it feels surprisingly natural. Director Christian Duguay’s film has the musty glory of an Italian epic that was filmed in eight different languages before being dubbed into English, and in such films, windy speeches come with the territory.
Containing more smoking than a season and a half of Mad Men, Chanel begins in 1954, when the 71-year-old designer (Shirley MacLaine) is about to release her first collection in 15 years, which is widely seen as irrelevant to the era. Cue flashbacks to the eve of WWI, when the younger Chanel (Barbora Bobulova) becomes the mistress of handsome officer Etienne Balsan (Sagamore Stévenin). The pace is glacial for the better part of an hour, as she’s trapped a triangle with Balsan and his best pal, aggressive entrepreneur Boy Capel (Olivier Sitruk). Chanel finally kicks into gear when Capel agrees to bankroll Chanel’s atelier, and a string of iconic masterpieces—the little black dress, the suit and Chanel No. 5—are born.
Bobulova has the grace and innocence of Audrey Tautou, but none of the saccharine charm, which makes it easy to both root for her and imagine her gradual transformation into the embittered diva played by MacLaine (whose fine, lioness-in-winter performance blessedly lacks the quirkiness of her recent Hollywood work). Chanel devotees will be able to pick out inaccuracies galore, but instead of carping, they’d be better off admitting that doing so is really half the fun.