Sunday, January 22, 2012

Anne and Audrey Channel Chanel

Find Coco Before Chanel on Video

Anne and Audrey Channel Chanel

(from 9/21/09)
First came a film about how Julie Child evolved from neophyte to expert in the culinary arts, capable of teaching American women how to master French cooking. On its heels is "Coco Before Chanel," a French film about another rule-breaking icon, this time a poor, unknown French seamstress who eventually changed the way women around the world dressed and smelled. Like "Julie & Julia," writer-director Anne Fontaine's biopic is not about an entire career of one of the most famous cultural figures of the 20th Century, but about the creation, in her particular field, of an artist and revolutionary. Audrey Tautou is perfectly cast as the young Coco, who seeks her fortune and fame as a cabaret performer, but eventually discovers her real talent lies in fashion. Her inspiration comes from the world she ventures into thanks to two lovers, both members of the idle rich: Frenchman Etienne Balsan (brilliant Benoit Poelvoorde), and Englishman "Boy" Capel (rising American star Alessandro Nivola). In anticipation of the film's New York premiere this Friday, I took part in roundtables with Fontaine ("La Fille de Monaco"), Tautou ("Amelie" and "The Da Vinci Code"), and Nivola ("Junebug"). I note my questions.
Danny Peary: In America we have Horatio Alger and "rags-to-riches" stories, and always say "this could only happen in America." Is the story of Coco Chanel one that people in France say could only happen there?
Anne Fontaine: A self-made woman could happen anywhere. Coco had personality, originality, and was very audacious, and that's not a specifically French way to be. But her elegance and style was very French. She came from a little town in the center of France. She doesn't have any artistic or intellectual education, and the way she invents a style that is very simple and very austere for this periodI think there's something very French in her character. Audrey Tautou has that also.
Q: While making your movie, were you conscious of "La Vie en Rose?"
AF: Only in that the two films are about French icons. I've discovered when traveling that Coco Chanel is known more outside France than Edith Piaf. Their stories began the same way because they were both orphans and had no money. But in how they managed their futures, Edith Piaf was a victim and Chanel never wants to be. The movies themselves are very different. One is a bio pic with flashbacks; mine is a point of view, an angle--it speaks about Chanel's youth and the construction of a myth, stopping when she begins to be a celebrity. I didn't try to illustrate her life but to feel through her how it happened, how she discovers her own style.
Q: Did you have to modify your approach because Audrey Tautou is so closely associated with "Amelie" and Benoit Poelvoorde is so associated with "Man Bites Dog?"
AF: No, because those films came out a long time ago, particularly in France. I wanted good, true actors for the roles, actors who didn't rely on makeup and imitation. It's amazing how much Audrey looks like Chanel. The intensity of the eyes, the determination, the charisma, and the thin bodyyou need a certain type of body to play the first androgynous woman. I think Audrey felt liberated playing such a different part. For me, Benoit, who is from Belgium, is one of the most interesting French actors today. He's incredible. He's very inventive, human, and original.
I think Benoit and Audrey play together very well because they are so different.
Q: What was the challenge of writing a biography?
AF: You have to imagine and feel inside what happened. You have to sense the vulnerability and the way Chanel looked at the world. That is not in a book. There is a book about her life, "Coco Chanel" by Louise de Vilmorin, that is very interesting because you enter into her personality and see which lies are good ones and which lies are bad ones. Chanel said, "I invent my life because I did not like my life." She created fiction about her life. And that's very interesting about her.
Q: What's the best lie?
AF: She invented an entirely different background from the one she had. .
She said her father was very, very rich and made his fortune in America and the truth was he died drunk and homeless. So I find her moving because she didn't want compassion or pity. She was a survivor but didn't want to be perceived as a victim.
Q: Did you have to take poetic license with her story as you know it?
AF: There are a few things we did with time. And we made one character out of her sister and young aunt. It's not like a documentary because you don't have part of her life. There are mysteries to her story that required I take some freedom, so what has been most rewarding is that people who knew the characters in the movie say we are very close to them.
Q: What did you find most challenging about doing this film?
AF: The challenge was to be fresh because it's a heavy thing to do a period movie. Everything has to be true to the time but with Chanel it has to be modern. I tried to do the movie through her eyes, through her perception. She's like a heroine of a Balzac book. She's very clever but it's more instinctual than intellectual. It was difficult to be born without anything and be able to break social barriers and discover your vocation and destiny. She showed intelligence and exhibited strength. I was drawn to her life because it had the mix of tragedy and success. What she did to become a success with her clothes transcended tragedy.
Q: It's interesting that in your film, Chanel isn't really interested in fashion, but wants to be an actor or singer.
AF: It's interesting that she finds her vocation although she had never felt it was the one meant for her and never pursued it. With very famous people, you always assume they dreamed from the beginning of being what they became. She couldn't imagine being in fashion. Even when she once visited Isadora Duncan's house, she said, "I am not an artist, I am an artisan." She didn't think there was much to sewing. She was frustrated sewing, but she had such a big talent that it was her destiny. Maybe people will see that they can find their vocation without being aware it is what they are best at. I like that idea on life.
Q: How did you use the camera to show what Chanel was going through, including her inspiration in regard to fashion.
AF: All the aesthetic choices were made to convey Chanel's education on style and taste. We used colors on clothes and locations. For instance, we had Etienne Balsan live in a white castle. It could have been any kind of castle but I wanted one that conveyed simplicity. I rarely had a fixed camera. I had it moving a little to convey that things are always moving forward for her and that she feels tension. She wants to be somebody but is nervous as she moves forward. The moving camera conveys insecurity and fragility. You think she is very strong but she is vulnerable.
DP: Early in the movie, Coco says, "A woman in love is helpless, like a begging dog." Her example was probably her own mother. But would she say such words after she falls in love for the first time, with Boy Chapel?
AF: She says that seriously, but with some humor. Her mother suffered because her father was horrible. She saw her mother as a woman who was completely alienated and Coco became afraid to love because to feel love is to lose control. But she loved Boy Capel deeply because he believed in her before she did herself. She would have many lovers but the first one is the strongest in a life. She felt lonely in her life because she could never marry or have children. She had a complex relationship with love.
Q: In the last scene, we see models walk past with Chanel's clothes from over the years. In the production notes it says you spoke to Karl Lagerfeld of Maison Chanel.
AF: I met him several times. We spoke in a very natural way. He's very funny. We showed him the drawings of the clothes my costume designer, Catherine Leterrier, made from the time period before she was a famous fashion designer. And he agreed with the sketches. Of course, I wanted to have her clothes in the film in the last scene that we shot on the famous staircase. Those are her clothes. I went to the museum at the Chanel Conservatory. It was wonderful to see the clothes under plastic in a conservatory nobody can visit. It had never moved me before to see a dress but there, yes, it was so impressive.
Q: If Coco were alive today, what would you ask her?
AF: I'd like to know how her personal life affected what she created.
I wonder if her celebrity and being a control freak in her work made her even lonelier. I'd like to know if she was happy at times because I'm not sure when that was. I'd like to speak to her.
Q: How did the part of Coco Chanel come to you?
Audrey Tautou: Anne proposed the part to me before she had written anything, before we knew if she could find moments interesting enough to make a movie not just about fashion and clothes.. I had really liked her other movies. They were very clever. So for me, she was the right person to do something about Chanel.
Q: Were you very familiar with Chanel?
AT: I realized very quickly that I didn't know that much and that my idea of her was kind of false. I knew that she became an icon and created a new style of fashion. I knew she was elegant, strong, and authoritative. But I thought she came from the bourgeoisie and everything had been easy for her. So I was surprised to learn of her background and that she wasn't born into her vocation. She came from a poor background and had elegance and unpredictable talent, and it was her meeting with Boy Capel that put her on this road. It surprised me to learn how she was influenced in regard to fashion and in turn influenced women for many decades and created an empire.
Q: What was the timing on your becoming the face of Chanel in its ad campaign?
AT: I was approached to do the movie before Chanel proposed to me to be the new face of Chanel No. 5. But we made commercials before I made the film. It was a real coincidence. I know her much better now, and learned how the perfume was revolutionary. It wasn't part of the fashion world. The smell, the packaging, the name --everything was the opposite of what everyone else was doing. It is amazing how ahead of her time she was. She was modern. The perfume is the biggest selling of all-time and is still modern.
Q: If Chanel were alive what would you ask her?
AT: First I'd take a lot of precautions because she had such a strong character. Maybe I'd ask her what she thought her greatest achievement was. Also: I don't understand how such a proud and independent woman could bear being a mistress. And I don't really understand why she worked so hard to hide her past. I wouldn't think she'd be ashamed of her past. But she didn't want her brother to show up in Paris, so gave him a house and tried to make him disappear. Even Edmonde Charles-Roux, a writer I spoke to who researched her for six years and met her doesn't know why she lied about her past.
Q: You're an actress known for your expressive face. Was it a struggle to put on a mask for Chanel?
AT: There was no need. Chanel wasn't cold and emotionless. In the interviews I've seen of her, she was very, very expressive. She was almost like a clown. She was funny and really expressed herself. This was toward the end of her life but in pictures taken of her when she was young, she was expressive and making faces. How would I describe her? The word in French is pudique. In English the only word you have is shy, but she wasn't really shy. [Tautou's roundtable translator Lilia Pino-Blouin says, "I've been studying this word for years and there is not a single term that fits; it's a mixture of shyness and shame, and being reserved and restrained because you want to protect yourself--plus being discreet and respecting other people's feelings."] People can have trouble saying they love someone or that they suffer; they keep it inside.
Chanel was very much like that.
Q: Where did her loneliness influence how you played her?
AT: Loneliness was her constant companion. She had that feeling from being an abandoned child, but also because she felt so different from other women. She was so bright and had so many aspects to her personality that were different. She was born a century too soon. In playing her I thought about this and how she didn't accept who she was in society or that she had a destiny in which she'd have a miserable life. It's so much easier to accept the rules. If you don't want to accept them, then you suffer. This isolated her. This is what I tried to keep in mind every day when shooting the film, even if that wasn't expressed in the scenes I was doing. Her mix of strength and vulnerability was important to me.
Q: How important was it for you to play this powerful, iconic woman who, as you say, was out of step with her time but created a phenomenal legacy?
AT: At first it was intimidating. Because I'm very common compared to her. She was interesting and deep. Even if she was not a light character and an easy part to play, I can't say it gave me the biggest pleasure in my career. .
Q: How important was the love affair Coco had with Boy Chapel to her?
AT: It determined much in her life. Maybe he was the one who revealed to her that her singularity was a strength and that she had a talent and needed to have confidence in it and trust it. He also invested in her financially. That was important. It was a real love. She would have loved to have married him, but if he had married her instead of the rich English woman, 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. She didn't have as much passion in her work.
DP: Other than when she was an entertainer, I didn't see her as being ambitious in her early life. Was she ambitious as a fashion designer?
AT: I think she was. Yes, yes, yes. In the Edmonde Charles-Roux biography of Chanel, a woman who saw her sing in the cabaret described her as "shy, ambitious." The adjective "shy" is something I wouldn't have thought about. You think of strength. But I realized that she couldn't correspond to clichs. She created with her doubts and suffering; you don't create if you're comfortable. She was a genius and very complex.
Q: Do you see parallels between her and yourself, stylistically or emotionally?
AT: MeI'm not modern at all. The Parisian--show business is not my cup of tea. She created the masculine-feminine, and that's something I share with her because I'm not girly-girly.
Q: How has "Amelie" shaped your career?
AT: The only thing is that I became really famous from this movie, so I got many more opportunities. It never affected the choices I made. I don't compare my parts and I don't make an attempt to build my career by choosing certain roles. I'm very instinctive. If I like something I do it, and if I don't like it, I won't do it.
Q: Having done "The Da Vinci Code," would you do more films in America?
AT: I would love to do more American movies but I wouldn't want to settle there. I like eclectic experiences. I'd need to be offered a new experience, something that surprises me. I don't have any wishes or expectations.
DP: Coco first sees Boy Chapel in Balsan's house sitting alone and playing the piano; they say nothing,
but a few minutes later he finds her alone reading. Is it love at first sight for both of them or just intrigue?
Alessandro Nivola: This is an interesting question. I felt the way to play it was that he was just a cad who wanted to seduce her like he seduced every other woman. By all accounts he stole everybody's girlfriends but did it in such a charming way that they still loved him. It was only after he thought he was going to marry someone else that he fell in love with Chanel. To me that was the most interesting way to look at it. That's also what happens to Balsan. I think in order to differentiate between the two men, Anne asked me to play Boy Capel as an orphan child who has no time for frivolity and knows what he wants and cuts to the chase. But I don't think that's what happened. He was a playboy who drove fast cars and played polo and was flirtatious with all pretty women. We shot that first scene where Boy is playing piano in two different ways. In the movie, I am alone and look over my shoulder and see Coco for the first time. In the discarded one, there was a girl sitting on top of the piano and I'm singing to her! There was the possibility that it could go either way, but it was up to Anne to make a choice.
DP: But was Coco supposed to fall in love with him right away, though she doesn't understand what love is at the time?
AN: It was really that moment when he surprises her by telling her, guess what, I'm an orphan child and from a poor family and I'm not from this nonsense. He's saying I like to hang out here, but it's not good for you and you should get the hell out. That is the moment she is caught of guard by him a bit, because she'd grown accustomed to a certain type of man. To discover that he wasn't an aristocrat but a self-made man made her realize that they shared so much. Surely what they had in common had appeal for both of them. So they fell in love.


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