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Film & Fashion: Coco Before Chanel

Just how does one become a fashion icon? Director Anne Fontaine and star Audrey Tautou (Amélie) team up to tell the backstory of Coco Chanel, an independent woman clearly ahead of her time.

Coco Chanel in the mirror

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Coco Before Chanel is...
 



When we think of Coco Chanel, we envision a strong, powerful woman at the helm of a fashion empire. But what of her childhood—where did she come from? What was the foundation for her never-before-seen talent, ambition, and fortitude? Was she to the manor born?

The answers, found in Anne Fontaine’s new film Coco avant Chanel (aka Coco Before Chanel), may just surprise you. The film focuses on her early life: Coco (nee Gabrielle) Chanel and her sister were abandoned in an orphanage at a young age. By young adulthood, the scrappy pair learned to scrape by, at times on sheer will alone. Part-time cabaret performer, part-time seamstress, Coco (Audrey Tautou: Amélie, The Da Vinci Code, Dirty Pretty Things) wormed her way (at great personal cost—she was a courtesan) into an aristocratic lifestyle, where she developed her unique, androgynous style. With the help of her lover, Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola), Coco began to design clothes not only for herself, but for others, laying the foundation for her eventual world-of-fashion domination.

As portrayed by Tautou, Coco is a riveting young woman with charisma and sass to spare. Clearly a woman who was ahead of her time, her determination to be someone is on display, and knowing about her hardscrabble roots only make the story more impressive. At a recent roundtable in New York, Tautou, Fontaine, and Nivola talked about the woman, her story, and their admiration for all things Chanel.
 



Coco Chanel in the tavern

In America, we have rags to riches stories. Is this a story that people say could only happen in France?

 
Anne Fontaine: No, a self-made woman can happen anywhere, because it’s a question of personality and originality. She was very audacious, [but] I don’t think it’s only a specifically French way to be. But her elegance, her style—I think that’s very French. Because she came from a very little town in the center of France, she doesn’t know anything about artistic and intellectual education. And the way she invents this style—very simple, very austere for this period—I think it’s something very French in her character, and Audrey has that also, I think.

How familiar were you with Chanel before the film?

Audrey Tautou: I realized very quickly I didn’t know that much, and that my idea of her was kind of false, because I knew of course the icon she was, and the fact that she had created a new style, and how elegant and strong, and strong-minded, and authoritative she was. But I thought that she came from the high bourgeoisie, and that everything had been easy for her.

So I was very surprised to realize where she was coming from, and in fact, that her vocation was not something that she was born with, but it was more the elements and her unpredictable talent, and the meetings with Boy Capel, which put her on this road. Very surprising, when you think of the empire she created, and how influential she was—she truly influenced women’s fashion.
 
What do you admire about Chanel?

Anne Fontaine: I very much admire autodidacts, because even today it’s difficult to be born with nothing and to be able to discover your vocation, your destiny, and to find the strength to break social barriers. I also like mixture of tragedy and success in Chanel’s life, because it’s a way to transcend tragedy—what she has done with her body, with the clothes, how she succeeded. She doesn’t want to inspire compassion or pity. She’s a survivor, but she doesn’t want to be a victim.
 
Coco Chanel in a black suit

What was the challenge in writing the screenplay? What was your research like?

Anne Fontaine: The challenge is to be fresh with a movie like this. It’s a heavy thing to do a period drama: everything has to be true, but you have to find room to breathe—to be modern. Chanel was very modern, and I tried to do everything through her eyes, her perception.

There is one book that was very interesting, about the lies of Chanel. It lets you enter into her personality, because she said, “I invented my life, because I did not like my life.” She made fiction of her life.
 
The film reminds us of La Vie En Rose, the biopic of Edith Piaf, for which Marion Cotillard won the Oscar for Best Actress.

Anne Fontaine: It’s very different. They began the same way, since they were two orphans and they had no money, but one is a victim, and the other never wants to be. And the other thing is that the movies are very, very different—one is a biopic of the whole life, with flashbacks, and mine is a point of view, an angle, [which speaks] about the construction of a myth and stops at the beginning of celebrity. But of course, they are both French icons.

How did you cast Audrey?

Anne Fontaine: I was sure that for the part, I needed to find a good actress, but I also needed to find a true actress [who fit the part] without doing the makeup and imitating her. When you see the pictures of Gabrielle Chanel, and when you see Audrey, it’s amazing, the similarities. The way they look, the intensity of the eyes, the very thin body—you have to have another kind of body to play Chanel. Chanel was the very first androgynous woman; she was so different. And when you see Audrey, what I felt was that she has a lot of charisma, she’s very singular (physically speaking), and she has a lot of determination.
 
Do you see any parallels between yourself and Coco Chanel? Either personally or stylistically?

Audrey Tautou: I am not modern at all. I don’t like the Parisian show business, it’s not my cup of tea. And my style—she created the masculine/feminine, and I think that is something I share with her, because I am not girlie-girly.
 
Coco Chanel (Audrey Tautou)

You are also the face of Chanel No. 5.

Audrey Tautou: I realize now that No. 5 was revolutionary, because everything was out of fashion at the moment—the smell, the packaging, the name—everything was exactly the opposite of what everyone else was doing. So it’s amazing that she could be so modern and ahead of her time. Today it’s still the highest-selling perfume—it’s still modern, it’s not old-fashioned at all.
 
How did you—as an American—end up in this very French movie?

Alessandro Nivola: Anne must have seen me in an English movie, and she just called my agents up and said, “Does he speak French?” And they said yes, of course, even though I sort of barely did. And we had a phone conversation, where I had prepared some very specific statements that I could stumble through, and the next thing I knew, I was in Paris.
 
What was the research process like?

Alessandro Nivola: This role was so technically demanding, just in terms of the things this guy did well, which were old-fashioned Renaissance man skills that I just didn’t have. I couldn’t speak French like him, I couldn’t play polo, I play some piano—but I couldn’t just toss off Scott Joplin songs—and I can’t dance. I couldn’t really do any of the things that were required of me.

Coco Chanel in Paris

Was there a language barrier?

 
Alessandro Nivola: I remember sitting at lunch the first couple of weeks, and not understanding what people were saying, and the other actors were telling jokes and I was pretending to laugh and hoping no one was going to ask me to elaborate. It was really an awful, awful feeling. You lose your personality and your sense of humor, and your ease, and you find yourself rigid with fear. Then slowly, my French started coming on faster and faster, and that helped a lot.  
 
What was it like working with Audrey?

Alessandro Nivola: It was a huge relief to me that she had put herself in the same situation I had, a couple of years ago, with the Stephen Frears movie, and The Da Vinci Code, and she was totally sympathetic. I remember after the first day, she said, “I know it’s hell, but it will get better.” That was a big comfort to me.

She was so well suited to the role. She has this aristocratic presence, and she’s got these incredibly fine features, and she’s so delicate, but she’s a really tough girl, and really bright, and opinionated, and knows what she wants, and demanding of quality. Just the opposite of what you think of this fragile little creature. I just think the world of her, and I am so grateful that she was able to identify with me a bit, in the experience of acting in another language.
 
What statement is the film making about finding one’s voice?
 
Anne Fontaine: You think that very famous people always dreamed of being what they are famous for, but Coco couldn’t imagine [making clothes]. Even when she was very famous, she went to Isadora Duncan’s house and she said, “I am not an artist—I am an artisan.” She felt frustrated, in a way, but she has so much talent. You can find your vocation at any time, and you are not aware that it’s going to happen. I like this idea in life.
 
Coco Chanel and Boy Capel

How important was the love story of Boy and Coco?


Audrey Tautou: I think it was determinative in her life. He might be the one who revealed to her that her singularity was a strength, and that she had this talent and she had to be confident with it and trust it. He was the first man—and that’s important, because then, without a man, a woman was nothing—to consider her. And financially, he invested in her—he gave her some money to get started—which was very important.

You can imagine that if he had married her—because she would have loved to marry him—we don’t know if she would have worked and been creative. She said that when she was in love, she really didn’t want to go to work. It was something very—not boring, but she didn’t have the same passion for it. She was a real lover, in a way. So it’s incredible to realize that her destiny was on such a thin thread. Life is always like that with amazing destiny.
 
Early in the film, Chanel is disdainful of love, saying, “A woman in love is helpless like a baying dog.” Would she say that later on in the story, after she meets Boy Capel?
 
Anne Fontaine: It’s ironic, no? She’s a whore [when she says that]. She knows that her mother always suffered because her father was awful—drunk, with other women... So she saw an image of woman like this—alienated—and of course she was afraid to fall in love because she was afraid to lose control. But she loved Boy Capel, because he believed in her before she believed in herself. And after he died, of course she had many other lovers, but the first one as you know is the strongest in the construction of a life, and she felt very lonely. All her life, she never married or had children—she had a complex relationship with love.
 
She was very lonely by the end of her life. She wanted to control everything, she was a control freak—and [I wonder how] she managed to have an interior life. Was she happy sometimes? I am not sure she was very happy.

Coco Chanel on the stairs

Where does her loneliness play into her character?


Audrey Tautou: Loneliness was a constant companion. She was born a century too soon. Of course [she was lonely] because she was an abandoned child, but also she felt so different than other women, and she was so bright. There were many aspects of her personality and her childhood that isolated her.

How did you incorporate that into your performance?

Audrey Tautou: In trying to interpret her, I tried to keep this [vision] of not accepting that [one’s] destiny is just to have a miserable life. When you are rebel, you fight, you are determined, but you suffer, because you don’t know if you are going to succeed. It’s so much easier to accept the rules, and if you don’t want to accept them, you suffer. This isolated her, and this is what I tried to keep every day of the shoot. Even if I was not expressing it in a scene, I really thought that this mixture of strength and vulnerability was important.
 
Is there something about her that is still a big mystery to you?

Audrey Tautou: I don’t understand how a woman who is so proud, so independent, could bear to be so often a mistress. And I also don’t really understand why she worked so hard to hide her past, because I don’t think there’s really a reason to be ashamed of it.
 



Note: In a press junket first, Tautou asked the reporters to gather for a photo after the roundtable was finished. She says she's been doing this for eight years, and has photographed everyone who has ever interviewed her. We look forward to seeing what she does with these photos.

Coco Before Chanel opens on Friday, September 25.
Buy tickets now.

Watch the trailer:

 

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