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LAist Interviews: Coco Before Chanel

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Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

If Coco Chanel had been a contestant on Project Runway they would have moved her on to at least the final three. Her heart-wrenching backstory, which would have been revealed as Tim Gunn came to her home to check on her progress before Bryant Park, is reality television gold. But Chanel came before Bravo and Lifetime, and before she was Chanel she was just Coco. Born into a poor family, Coco’s mother died when she was young and her father took off soon after, leaving her to be raised in an orphanage. She later worked in a cabaret and earned money by doing a bit more than just singing. She made up stories to hide the embarrassing details of her past as she grew to become a fashion icon. Along the way she befriended wealthy French racehorse owner Etienne Balsan and a handsome Brit nicknamed Boy, either of whom she could have lived with happy-ever-after if this was a Hollywood story instead of a true one. The reality of Coco’s life is much more interesting. She faced many hardships, but like any good designer, she made it work.

I recently had a chance to sit down with the film's writer/director Anne Fontaine and Amélie ingénue Audrey Tautou to speak about the woman who inspired the film, Coco Before Chanel.

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LAist: Tell us, why were you so interested in Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel?

Anne: When I was young I had the chance to meet Chanel’s last assistant, Lilou Marquand, who was with her a long time and also lived with her. She was very close with Gabrielle Chanel. I knew of Chanel, as everyone did, as this old woman with cigarettes who was very tough and bourgeois. When you find out who she was in the beginning, a courtesan, it’s amazing what she built for her own destiny. It was very revolutionary for a woman of her time.

LAist: Audrey, how was it different playing a historical figure rather than a fictional character?

Audrey: The interesting thing in this movie was that I was at the frontier between the famous Chanel and the unknown one, so with the famous one, the regular way of playing the part is you just observe her and you try to recreate her as close as possible, it’s more mimicking than an interpretation. On the other side we are showing a very unknown Chanel, it was not a fictional character but it was a mystery. So that’s where I could give it my own special touch. It was very interesting for me to mix those two elements.

Anne: When I thought to do a movie about Chanel, I thought if I don’t have a great actress I can stop right now. Chanel was so special both physically and with who she was and I felt instinctually that Audrey had these qualities. When I met her, after 10 minutes, the way she looked at me, the way she had both toughness and fragility and this body, which was very thin and androgynous, and these eyes so intense, I felt, “I have found her!” It was like a reincarnation of Coco Chanel for me. It helped me, after we met, to do the script with her in mind. I think she was perfect. Nobody else could do that part. She had to look very different from the other women at the time who were very voluptuous and in many ways more feminine, as Chanel was the first androgynous woman in fashion.

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LAist: How did you prepare for the role?

Audrey: I read some biographies and looked at photographs and video of her to get an idea about the main aspects of her personality and her external behavior. I tried to figure out what parts of her stayed constant throughout her life and which maybe changed with her success. I felt very lucky to play her as a young woman because she is one of the most brilliant French women ever. It was an enriching opportunity to touch her, to know her.

LAist: When did you decided to focus on the early years of Coco Chanel?

Anne: I needed to make a choice on a part of her life because she lived so long, she was 87 years old, and I didn’t want to make an illustration of her life. I felt that the youth of Chanel, even in France, was more unknown, more mysterious. And I liked very much this relationship she had with these two men, Balsan and Boy Capel. I thought that the fashion at this moment was about her lifestyle, not about fashion shows. It’s better to find how she creates her style and herself first. She is so poor she needs to create because she has two dresses, and how she transforms these dresses was interesting to me. And also how her vocation came to her. She never dreamed to be a stylist. She sewed because she learned it in the orphanage. She thought sewing was for common women, not for her, because she dreamed of a different destiny. She wanted to be an art performer, an actress or a singer. I loved the idea that somebody so famous, a legendary icon, had no idea that fashion would be what would make her famous.

Audrey: I don’t think she thought of herself as a feminist, but because of the values that she embodied, she was a feminist. When you want to have the same freedoms as a man and you don’t want to depend on them and please them at any cost, it’s a very feminist way of thinking. She was a woman of the new century.

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Anne: To be so singular in this period was difficult because women were measured by their desirability to men and you had to be very strong and even audacious to be how she was. I like the way she’s funny and has an answer for anything, with no education. That I admire very much because even today, to be born so poor and to be able to construct yourself in another society, you know, to not be a victim.

LAist: There was a man at the screening who mentioned he thought Chanel was taking advantage of men. Do you think that was the case?

Audrey: Ah, for once the tables are turned! That’s a very male reaction. (laughs) Of course she made some compromises to be able to stay in Balsan’s house and to remain in that aristocratic world, but she didn’t have any choice. She was very clever because a woman’s position at that time, well, they were just nothing. Especially her. The social classes were very separate. There are still social classes today but there’s more mobility and more mixing between the classes. Of course she took advantage of Balsan, but you know, he took advantage of her, too. So, personally, I don’t see any problem with that.

Anne: She uses them in a certain way, but she has no choice because she is dependent. She is a courtesan; it’s like a whore almost. A very pretty name for whore, but the truth is, it was that. In the cabarets in this period, if you were very poor, it happened frequently. When she meets Balsan she has no future, no future at all. She sews but she doesn’t care for it, she sings but it’s in a very bad, low-class cabaret and she has this ambition to be somebody someday. And then Balsan is there and I think she would be very stupid not to use him, but she uses him in a way almost like a friend. They were very close and he fell in love with her, but she fell in love with another man. The other man becomes her mentor, the first to put money on her and believe in her. You can say she’s using men, but at the same time I do that as a director! I see a man who wants to put money on my movie and I don’t have to sleep with him, but you know… It’s because she’s a survivor.

LAist: How was it working with Benoit Poelvoorde and Alessandro Nivola?

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Audrey: I’ve admired Benoit for a long time. He’s an amazing actor and I really enjoyed working with him. I was really drawn to Alessandro because he did amazing work as an American actor playing an Englishman speaking in French. Both are very different characters but complimentary. They have totally opposite energy in this love triangle.

LAist: How did Alessandro Nivola become involved?

Anne: I needed an English-speaking actor and I auditioned in England and couldn’t find an actor who could speak French enough to play the part. It was horrible, they had accents that make you want to kill yourself. (laughs) And they were very good actors and sexy but in French they lost all their charm. I saw Alessandro in some movies, but of course they were American movies, and I thought, “If he can speak French, maybe it would not be stupid to think about him for Boy.” I said to him, “Okay, come to Paris and we’ll do some tests.” And he was a little afraid and he asked, “Are you sure?” and I said, “I am not sure I’ll take you but I’m sure you should come here and speak with me.” And I made him speak with me in French, just improvising. I said, “I’ll ask you questions and you have to answer me in French and I’ll tape you.” After that I felt he was very good for the part, he was very different from Benoit Poelvoorde, and I helped him not only to speak better French but also to walk like a British gentleman because he walked like a cowboy at the beginning.

LAist: One of the most important relationships in Coco’s life is with her sister. She’s involved with this Barron who won’t marry her or even introduce her to his parents. Did her sister ever get married?

Anne: Yes, to this Barron, but fifteen years later. She has to wait a long time until the parents die. It’s very interesting, Chanel and her sister, because they are from the same parents, the same origins, the same childhood in an orphanage, but one is a classic woman. She dreams to have a good husband, a very banal life and she believes in feelings and romantic love. And the other one, Gabrielle, she is not like that. She loves her sister but she thinks that she is naïve. She thinks that love is always a mistake. She’s had this terrible tragedy to be abandoned by her father who tells her he’ll be back for her and never comes. She always lies about that. She says that he’s found fortune in America or that he’s working far away. When she falls in love she’s very surprised that it happens to her because she is very guarded. Her sister is a woman of this period, not more, and so you see the difference with somebody who is exceptional and one who is more normal. This is why I like the sister.

LAist: Do you feel that being a female director gave you a different perspective on Chanel’s life?

Anne: I think men can be very deep also, but maybe to be woman you understand better because you have that kind of body and she liberates women’s bodies. When you are a woman, you understand what it is to have corsets to where you can’t breathe anymore.

LAist: Speaking of clothes, tell us about the costumes.

Anne: The costume designer knew Chanel’s style very well, but we had to invent what it was before Chanel that inspires her. It was very interesting to go at the birth of that, at the beginning, because it’s part of her life and her art. The first trouser, the first pajamas, those were exciting because when I see Audrey in these clothes I thought it was incredibly modern, I could wear it today exactly the same. Like the striped t-shirt from the fisherman, it’s all so close to what we wear today in our society. She was a century ahead. We designed everything, did drawings, and of course we had photographs of Chanel when she was young. It was the first time in my life that clothes were so important to a movie but we had responsibility, an historical responsibility. At the end, for the fashion show, all the clothes that you see were done by Chanel herself, they came from the conservatory of Chanel.

Audrey: That was very important because the costume is Chanel. It’s the exact reflection of her personality, of her singularity, of her desire to be free, to be equal to men and to be seen. Also, when you look at pictures of Chanel, even when she was very young, you can see that she has a real charisma and it’s important that we see that. I think the costumes helped a lot.

LAist: Tell us about your experience working with the horses.

Audrey: I learned to ride horses when I was a child, but I hadn’t practiced in a long time so I had to get training. It was great except they gave me a very nervous horse. At first it was very easy but Anne wanted us to do a scene, the one where he’s giving me riding lessons, she wanted us to do it while galloping. When I got on the set I discovered that the location was like this lawn highway and I was on this horse who was totally ready to take off. So I got petrified, I was like, “No way. This isn’t going to work.”

Anne: Yes, Audrey was a little bit afraid sometimes. Benoit Poelvoorde, when we put him on a horse the first time, he fell off. I said to him, “This cannot be, horses are supposed to be your whole life.” French actors are different from Anglo-Saxon actors; it’s a little more difficult to make them do sports and things like that.

LAist: When I was walking out of the theatre last night, there were a number of people who thought it was a sad ending because she’s left reminiscing about this man. Do you see it like that or do you think she was happy?

Audrey: Well, it’s life, you know. There’s no perfect life and her life was filled with both success and tragedy. It’s true that Boy Capel was really the love of her life and without his trust and belief in her she might never have become Chanel. So for romantic spirit it’s sad, but for achievement, you could see it as she met this man and he enabled her to rise to where she was going. What’s interesting is the fragility of her destiny, because if Boy had married her we can easily imagine that she would have maybe spent her life in England and never have become Coco Chanel because it’s partly that despair that made her work so hard.

Coco Before Chanel is currently in theaters

Article by Courtney Quinn