A few weeks ago, I got the chance to interview “Coco Before Chanel” director Anne Fontaine. Fittingly, we met at The Ritz-Carlton, the hotel Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel famously called home for many years in Paris.
Ms. Fontaine spoke of her decision to focus on Chanel’s early years, to cast French actress Audrey Tautou as the lead, and more.
The biopic comes out on Friday, October 9.
Ryma Chikhoune: How did you decide where to begin the story of Coco Chanel?
Anne Fontaine: As you saw, I was very interested in young Chanel, because it’s a part of her life more mysterious, that people don’t know very well. Also, it’s the moment where she discovers her future career. She invents, in her own life, her style, a new way to be.
It’s very interesting to see, at this period, the modernity of this way to be, this very modern woman in a century where the women were completely overdressed with these hats, with all the decoration, corsets. And to see, between these two men, who are so important in her destiny, to see this girl who is so poor at the beginning and so lower class, cabaret singer, you know, that she doesn’t know that she’s going to be Chanel. To see through her eyes, how she educated herself to be somebody one day, because she has this talent that she doesn’t know, because she doesn’t care at the beginning.
To sew, for her, was for ordinary women, you know, it was not something very prestigious. I think it’s a very interesting period, because she creates herself at this moment. After that it’s another, you know, there are many lives in Chanel’s life, because lives until 87 years old.
RC: The film ends at the beginning of the Chanel we are more familiar with today. Why did you decide to stop short of her later years?
AF: It’s an artistic choice. I think in a two-hour movie you can’t be deep, you know, on many parts of her life. I think you can do many movies about her in many parts, very different. For me, it was an artistic choice to do that and to be free, because I think if a director, for example, goes to the part where she did the perfumes and everything, you are not free, because you have the Chanel house that controls…maybe.
RC: You had more liberties this way.
AF: Yes, I think so, yes.
RC: You spoke of the corsets and the elaborate hats that were fashionable then. Chanel clearly could not afford such things.
AF: No, she couldn’t pay them, of course.
RC: Do you think she used this to her advantage?
AF: Yes, of course, because I think the fashion she invents it is because she was different. The first thing that is very important is that she has a very different body, very different style. She was not considered at all like a beautiful woman, you know. She was very thin, like anorexic almost. She was androgyne, and it doesn’t exist at this period. Now, today, it’s fashion.
To understand Chanel, you have to understand that she was very different. She was different not just in the mind, but in the body…She was very poor. She has two dresses at the beginning, you know, for singing and one for tailleur. Of course, she has this intuition when she goes to Balsan, Étienne Balsan, this aristocrat’s French house to be chic, to be simple….She has this genius intuition to take boy clothes and mix with dresses, for example.
And she knew black and white, because she was in this monastery during many years when she’s orphan. She is raised up with these two colors in front of her. Everyday she sees the nuns, and they wear that. When she’s in this castle, she has to invent something, because she couldn’t, of course, have this kind of dress. And, also, because this kind of dress, on her, it was ugly, you know. It’s not at all for her, because she has nothing to fill the dress, no forms. Of course, it begins like that, I think, because she wants to be comfortable. All the fashion of Chanel after, it is based on two things, to be always the same thing, very like uniform and also to be comfortable, not to be decorative.
RC: The jersey jacket comes to mind.
AF: Yes! To be able to work with, to run in, to do sports in. Everything. And it’s in this castle, during these years, when she’s there…she feels that if she’s different, the other women look at her, you know, when she has the trousers to ride the horses everybody looks at her says, ‘Oh, what’s that,’ but they are curious about that also. It’s a provocative way to be.
RC: She leads the way.
RC: The color contrasts shown in the scenes in the orphanage are quite striking. The viewer is hit with the black and white.
AF: Yes, because it’s like a flash. Everybody who knows about Chanel knows that black and white are the colors that are most important.
RC: What adjectives would you use to describe the Chanel we meet at the start of the film?
AF: She is vulnerable, I think. She doesn’t want people to feel compassion about her. She has a very tragic beginning, because when you’re abandoned at nine years old by the father that says to her that he will come, but he never comes back. It was difficult, because in this monastery, you have rich girls in the red dresses you see at the beginning of the movie, and the other ones, the poor without parents, in black. It begins like that.
When you saw the two sisters when they are 20, when they are in the cabaret, singing, that Chanel wants another destiny. And the other one, she thinks about love…They have exactly the same education. That is interesting to know, to see how one wants to be somebody and the other one wants to be in love and has no special ambitions. The two adjectives are determined, but vulnerable underneath, because she doesn’t know what is going to happen. She has no money. She has no parents. It’s very difficult, when you are so lower class, to change your destiny. It happens very rarely, as you know.
RC: How would you describe Chanel near the end of the film when she is on the staircase, displaying her haute couture?
AF: When she’s on the défilé, she is in front of her future, for me. I put her in a white and blue marine tailleur. It is the tailleur that is very mythic, because Chanel wore it when she was about 70 years old, you know. It was not at 35. It is a mythic….mythic….
AF: Symbol of what she was. When she’s on the stairs, it is shot on Chanel’s stairs, really….What you see, the fashion, it is of course real Chanel dresses and tailleurs…I chose the most symbolic, but it’s many years. It’s not only in 1914 or 1915, it’s also 1920, 1930, 1940, 1950. And I mixed, because I want that she was on the legendary position, but she’s between her background, the past, and it was difficult to be there, you know.
She suffers, because she lost her most important love, and also, she was abandoned at the beginning. Two times something very important happens, very tragic. Also, she is in front of the most successful economic empire it’s going to be after. For me, it was to let her there at the beginning of the myth of Chanel, you know. It was that kind of emotion I wanted to produce.
RC: Did you take any other liberties when you were writing the script?
AF: Yes, I took some, of course, because when you write a story about a character alive, you have to be very, very precise and true. But also, you have to imagine things, and you have to invent through her, because there is no book that says everything, of course. Well, for example, the sister is a mix of the real sister of Chanel and her aunt, because she had a sister, Julia, and she has an aunt, Adrienne…It was a very, very close relationship, and she has the same age as Chanel, almost. And it was too complicated to put the two characters, you know. It was better to make a wedding between them.
Also, for example, Boy Capel in the real life of Chanel, the death is later on, but I wanted to stop before historically. I didn’t want to go through the war, because it was another thing. I make Boy Capel dead a little earlier than in reality, but it’s the same emotions, it’s the same. I think also when she speaks. I have to invent the way she speaks through what I think about- You know, people who knew Chanel saw the movie in France, of course. They told me that it’s incredible that she was so true, because, of course, of Audrey Tautou, because she’s very similar. There are many similarities between her and young Chanel.
RC: Was Audrey Tautou your first choice?
AF: Yes. It was the first, and for me, it was a unique possibility, because, in France, it has to be a very special actress. She has to be physically very small, thin, and there are not many, you know. And these eyes with a lot of intensity. It was incredible. She is don for the part. And for me, if she had said to me, “I am not very interested,” for example, I think I wouldn’t write the script…When it’s a very known character, as Chanel, a myth you know, you have to be so true…I don’t think another French actress could do the part…at this age. Later, it’s another thing.
RC: Tautou certainly plays the part beautifully.
AF: Yes, she’s very, very….She’s completely subtle. It’s very subtle what she’s doing. It’s not like, you know, doing imitation or…no. She’s very true to the part.
RC: She becomes Chanel.
AF: Yes, yes…At the beginning, she’s not very beautiful. And after that, you discover that she is so chic, you know.
RC: I’m wondering, would you call Chanel a feminist?
AF: Yes, it’s a feminist before feminism and without ideology, you know. Because she was not an intellectual at all. Chanel is very instinctive…But, I think she creates a kind of way to liberate the body of women. It’s very important the way you wear clothes, it’s a way to think also…It’s for that reason she is known also today. Because she was not like other stylist that made beautiful fashion. If it was only about fashion, for me, I didn’t care.
What I like about her, it is also that she incarnated a new way to be a woman. And that was original…very courageous. And I think, yes, she’s the beginning of the feminism, before feminism. Also, it was very rare to be a business woman. It was not possible…to succeed, to make money, to make it by herself later. It was very new. Today, we have more women in business and in power jobs, but not in this period at all.
RC: What role does fashion play in the film? It seems more of a character study of Chanel, the person…
AF: The fashion is on her. Somebody told me, and it’s very true, the 20th century is on her. When you look at her, when you see her with blue and white marinière…How do you say that?
RC: The stripped Navy shirt.
AF: Navy, yes. That’s it. When she has that on. The fashion, it was two kinds of work. The first work was to create what was fashion of Chanel before Chanel. How it begins. That was the first step, because you have to imagine which dress. You know, we have some pictures, but not many. And with my costume designer we create all that she wears, you know, with designers. And that was very interesting, because we have to make an evolution, you know, to be clothes close to Chanel style at the end of the movie, of course. That was the first thing. And the other thing was to see how she invents, how she puts a masculine col…How do you say?
AF: …collar with a dress very ordinary. How she, for example, takes the men pajamas of Balsan. Today, it’s fashion. For me, this way was interesting. What is not interesting for a movie is to see ten défilés. You don’t care, because it doesn’t bring emotion. What brings me emotion is to see how she has the ideas….every details. That for me was the way to make fashion.
RC: Her fashion evolves very naturally throughout the film.
AF: Yes, yes.
RC: What did you find most challenging during the shooting?
AF: Well, the challenge to write about a very famous character, very legendary. It’s something for me that was new…in a period movie also….because I have always done modern movies. And to be alive in this period. Not to be too much like a museum, you know. To be modern, because I thought that the movie had to have Chanel’s quality….not to show too much…to be through her. And also to be, yes, completely true to all the characters around her….not only her, because she’s not alone, of course. That was something difficult.
But maybe I felt free, because I knew these characters since I was very young. I felt a curiosity about her since a long time. And when the producers came to me, they didn’t know, of course, that I knew about her. I met people who were very close to Chanel, you know. I met, when I was 20, the woman who lived with her during her 15 last years. She was her assistant, friend, and she spoke a lot about her to me. And maybe it’s for that reason, for me, it was not too much intimidating, you know. When I’m doing the movie I forget that she was known everywhere, that the movie is going to be in every country…I didn’t care…I tried to be very close to her…in a way I felt she was.
RC: Was it by chance that you had met this woman (Lilou Marquand), who knew Chanel?
AF: Yes, because it is a little by chance. It is because I had a fiancé at this period, who was her ghostwriter…and I heard about her, because of this situation, and I saw pictures, you know. And I read books at this moment in my life, because I was very curious about her destiny. And many years later, when we spoke about the idea to do a movie, for me, it was somebody I had in the mind. It was not a strange woman, you know.
RC: What books did you read?
AF: We had the rights of Edmonde Charles-Roux’s biography…but it’s all the life…87 years old in biography takes a lot of pages. And also, “L’Allure de Chanel” from Paul Morand, a very good French writer who wrote a very special, very personal biography through her voice. It was like she spoke directly to the reader.
RC: I find it intriguing that Chanel manipulates her past. We know so little about her.
AF: Yes, it would not be the same freedom if I had to do when she was a business women, when she met very famous people. And I didn’t want to…Not because it is not interesting, but you have the Chanel house on your shoulders. You have the perfumes, the marque and everything. That, for me, was not the same way to do a movie.