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Audrey Tautou as Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel in writer/director Anne Fontaine's Coco Before Chanel.

Audrey Tautou and Anne Fontaine

The Ladies of Coco Before Chanel

Sep 25, 2009 Audrey Tautou
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The world knows her as a purveyor of simple yet elegant design. Her public persona and personal tragedies have been well explored on film and stage. But who was Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, really? Actress Audrey Tautou and director Anne Fontaine have set out to answer that question by exploring an untapped side of the French fashion icon’s storyher life before fame. Their film Coco Before Chanel hits American theaters today.

For both Tautou and Fontaine, the project held a simple attraction. “She had such a unique character and extraordinary temper that it was very enriching to have the opportunity to touch her and know her a bit more,” explains Tautou.

The director concurs with her star. “She’s not a nice girl,” Fontaine says of Chanel. “It’s more complex than that…. You had to be very strong to be very audacious like she was. And I like the way she’s funny, and she knows how to answer everything.”

Funny, she is. Early in the film, while working as a singer at a low-rent cabaret, Chanel meets future benefactor Étienne Balsan (played by Benoît Poelvoorde) and displays her quick wit, announcing, “When I’m bored I feel very old.” When a guilelessness Balsan asks her how old she feels, Chanel replies, “A thousand years!”

Of course, it’s impossible to create a story about a woman famous for fashion design without considerable costuming. The film is littered with outfits, as Chanel leaves the cabaret for a stint in Balsan’s house, and later leaves Balsan to become a designer in Paris. However, Chanel’s clothing only interested Fontaine as an extension of the woman herself.

“It’s the first time in my life that clothes are so important!” Fontaine laughs. “When I saw Audrey wear these clothes, it’s incredibly modern. It’s like I can use today exactly the same, you know? The striped t-shirt from the fish man, it’s so close to us in this society, it’s incredible.”

While admitting costuming did play a part in establishing her character, Tautou is less pragmatic about the importance of Chanel’s clothing. “I tried to get a jacket, but “maybe” after a few months they will give me [it],” she says with a laugh.

Embodying Chanel’s journey from youthful cabaret girl to high-society designer proved to be challenging for Tautou. At times, she felt like she was playing two characters. “The interesting thing in this movie is that I was at the frontier between famous Chanel and the unknown one,” explains Tautou. “So I can say that the famous one, it’s like the regular way of preparing a part. You just observe the material. You observe her and you try to recreate her as close as possible to what you see.”

“And on the other side, we were showing a very unknown Chanel,” Tautou continues. “It was not a fiction character, but it was a mystery. So that is how I could give my own little touch.” Emotionally, Chanel wasn’t quite the stretch as some might expect for Tautou, who famously embodied the sweet title role in Amelie. “I think I’m kind of strong-minded too,” she says. “And I’m very, very attentive to keep my independence!”

Fontaine contends that Tautou was the natural choice for the roleher only choice. “When I met her, after 10 minutes, the way she looks at me, the way she was tough [was] enough,” says Fontaine. “Other ways she was fragilethe body, very thinand with these eyes, so intense. I felt I had found her…. I wrote the script with her in mind.”

Other pivotal roles proved to be more difficult to fill. In casting English entrepreneur Arthur ‘Boy’ Capelthe man who finally breaks through Chanel’s romantic blaséFontaine faced a unique task: to find an actor whose charm translated in both French and English. “In England, I could never find an English actor who could speak French enough to play the part. It was horrible; they have accents like you kill yourself!” Fontaine laughs. She finally found her Capel in American actor Alessandro Nivola. “I helped him to not only talk better French, of course,” says Fontaine proudly, “but also to walk like a British gentleman, because he walked like a cowboy at the beginning!”

A crucial character, it is Capel who provides the tools Chanel needs to transform from courtesan to designer. Despite never marrying Chanel, it is under Chapel’s encouragementand later his bankrollthat she invents the “little black dress” and the perfect unadorned hat, her grief and talent forming the building blocks of her public persona. “What’s interesting is the fragility of her destiny,” reflects Tautou. “Because if Boy had married her, we can easily imagine that maybe she would have spent her life in England and maybe she would have never become Chanel.”

The route that Chanel took to “become Chanel” may raise a few eyebrows. Tautou explains her character’s dilemma: “Of course, she did some compromising to stay in Balsan’s house and to stay in the aristocracy world. But she didn’t have any choice.”

Likewise, Fontaine is careful not to paint too pretty a picture of the life young Chanel pursued. “A courtesan is like you are a whore, almost. It’s like a very pretty word…and when she met Étienne Balsan, she was completely without future. Of course, I think she would be stupid not to use him.” Likewise, Tautou is unrepentant about Chanel’s use of the men in her life. “For once the tables are turned!” she laughs. “Of course she took advantage of men and Balsan. But of course he accepted it. He took advantage of her, too. So, personally, I really don’t see any problem with that!”

Tautou pauses to consider what can be learned from Chanel’s chutzpah. “Maybe if you are determined, you can choose your destiny and not be weak…I think it’s important. For me that’s what’s the clearest in the story.”

www.sonyclassics.com/cocobeforechanel



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Coco avant Chanel focuses, quite literally, on the roots of Coco before the whole Chanel business. I noted the movie seemed to frustrate those with no grasp of the French language at all. Many seemed to go in unaware that the movie was set before her ‘Chanel’ days and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of disappointment at the end from others; via looking at their faces, overhearing conversations and talking with friends. It’s interesting, but it does plod on very slowly “Rolex Submariner

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