Coco Before Chanel: Interview with Actress Audrey Tautou

Audrey Tautou plays Coco Chanel in”Coco Before Chanel,” written and directed by Anne Fontaine, which is being released September 25, 2009 by Sony Classics.

Q: Reaction when Anne Fontaine suggested you portray the famous Mademoiselle of the rue Cambon?

A: The character of Coco Chanel has been hovering around me for several years. Premises of projects about her had been submitted to me before, but I did not want to do a biopic, i.e. participating in some sort of saga recounting her life from birth to death. Imagine, Chanel lived 87 years! We would inevitably have fallen in the clichés that have punctuated her path, and I was not interested in that. I was secretly hoping to get an offer with a particular point of view because the modernity of this character fascinates me, her spirit, and the position she gave women. In addition, when Anne Fontaine explained how she intended to treat the subject, I immediately agreed. Anne precisely wanted to avoid clichés and a mimetic interpretation. She
had not yet written the screenplay, but she was already determined to concern herself solely with the training years, and it seemed to me that the period when Coco was building herself and asserting her personality is the most interesting in her life. When a person succeeds beautifully in life, people have a tendency to say, ‘I was sure of this success!’ I have been fortunate to experience that, though to a minor degree, with Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (Amélie), but before this film, I had no clue that fame would land on me. I was like everybody, trying to move forward with doubts, questions, and uncertainties.

Q: The path of this little orphan who becomes the empress of fashion

A: The main goal of this film is not to deliver a message. Working on this character and getting to know her better, I realised the scope and singularity of her destiny. Actually, Chanel can represent a symbol of hope and success. One can start from scratch and reach the top, and in the social context of the time, nothing then meant much worse than today. Her celebrity is all the more exceptional at the beginning of the 20th century as Chanel had to fight against conventions that were very paralyzing for women. This film describes the destiny of a woman; it is not only for haute couture lovers. Chanel was born with an understanding of life and women that was totally ahead of her time. And her strong nature, her temperament, her arrogance, her pride and her intelligence allowed her to create what she has achieved. Characterised by great honesty and integrity, this woman never gave in. Chanel was not concerned with others, their recognition of her success; she was dedicated to fulfilling herself and refused to consider her condition as a tragedy.

Q: Apprehensive about playing a character that had really existed?

A: I wanted to give my own interpretation of this character, keeping in mind that the spectator had to recognise in it the mythical image of Chanel. Even if likeness on screen is very productive, the hardest thing was to avoid being satisfied with a mimetic performance, and to try to express her true nature. Her character and temperament that we perceived through photographs have not changed with time. Curiously, her evolution was going to help me. For example, in her years at Moulins, Coco is still a bit of a peasant. We discover a woman in doubt who wants something else for herself. She has her character and temperament but she is still very fragile. While shooting this part, I was uncertain myself, in doubt. I was not controlling her; I was not controlling myself. Then, it started to get clearer. In the last part, I was completely her.

The portrayal was not in the costume. I would even say it was not in the superficial side of the character, but in her inner self. I don’t know if I succeeded¼I think it was important to express without artifices how much this woman, even in her early years, was different and that she possessed charisma and an aura.

Q: How did you imagine Coco Chanel yourself?

A: The problem is that it is impossible to imagine her precisely as Chanel always disguised the reality. In preparing myself for the part, I read Paul Morand, then the biography by Edmonde Charles-Roux, L’Irrégulière; the portrait by Colette; and of course, all the biographies Chanel had validated. I did notice that she misguided people, maybe out of modesty, a characteristic of rural people. Anyway, it takes some cunning to know who Chanel really was! And I am not sure, without offending anyone, that everything that has been said and written about her—some of it contradictory—is close to her true self. I ended up being confused with all this material and the videos on her. So, I decided to look only at the photographs and give free rein to my imagination.

Q: The relationships Coco has with two men from the superficial society she discovers at Royallieu.

A: Yes, but she is very cunning in the way she imposes and shows herself off to her own advantage, very slowly, in this superficial society of Royallieu she is discovering. She suffers those humiliations cleverly, in any case obstinately and arrogantly, knowing she would not remain there and would never give in. She is immeasurably arrogant. She tells her sister, ‘One day, they’ll fight to dine at our table.’ She always keeps a form of contempt, or at least a distance vis-à-vis the circle around Balsan. She does not want to become a society woman, or worse, a woman of little virtue. She wants to be like a man—a woman who would have a man’s freedom. Coco quickly understands that she is not in love with Balsan, so friendship strikes up between them. She calls him her benefactor. She is well aware that Balsan considers her simply like an extravagance that amuses him, but she knows how to use him. He opens doors to her but, most of all, it is thanks to him that she goes to Paris. For a young, provincial girl, it is always extraordinary to discover Paris, even today. The first time I arrived in Paris—ah, Paris!—it’s impressive, it’s beautiful, it’s a dream, it’s the possibility to become somebody!

Q: Coco falls madly in love of Boy Capel.

A: The confidence and the way Boy Capel looks at her comforts and reassures her. He knows th
at Chanel holds the future in her, and that the spirit of freedom in this woman embodies modernity. Boy Capel has grasped her remarkable nature, and he makes her understand that her difference is not a handicap, but that on the contrary, it will be her strength. It will trigger change for her destiny. What they have in common is precisely this modernity.

Q: Coco was wary of feelings.

A: She does not want to depend on a man. She saw her mother suffer because she was in the emotional and financial grip of her inconstant husband, who regularly used to abandon her. I think Coco made a pact with herself, ‘I’ll never depend on anyone.’ On the other hand, it is interesting to imagine if Boy Capel had dared marry her, the destiny of Chanel would have been different. She loved him so dearly¼it could have been all she needed to be happy. Actually, Chanel is a very complex person. Morand said that loneliness was the companion of Chanel. This proximity with loneliness has been one of the keys in my approach of the role. In the final sequence, alone on the staircase, as her models parade under the applause, and she is at the pinnacle of her glory, triumphant, this loneliness must have shown on her face.

Q: The evolution of her character?

A: Watching the photographs, I noticed how Chanel held her head haughtily, standing very straight, as if a string pulled her head up. It was impossible to detect her provincial origins in the elegance of her gait, or in her graceful gestures, the way she held her cigarette, for example. Her purely physical transformation is not so obvious during those years, but she acquires deportment and authority the more she grows confident in herself. It also had to show when she was seated, but it did not mean that I had to play her as authoritarian; it was more as if doubts start to disappear little by little. I also wanted to convey the sharp gaze she had from the start. Chanel was very attentive and extremely lucid. That is also the reason why she had this destiny and this creativity.

Q: What else is there of Chanel in Tautou?

A: There may also be a similar lucidity on the world that surrounds us, with a sense of attention and observation. A faith in one’s instinct. A capacity to decipher quickly the true personality of the other, his psychology, and intentions. That is the reason why I believe that Chanel was not a person who would be easily impressed; she was quick in detecting hypocrisy and superficiality. The common point is mainly behaving adequately with my personality, my convictions, and my nature. I hope I am like her, a very upright person, honest who does not sell her soul.

Q: Your male partners are very different actors

A: I was very happy to work with Benoît Poelvoorde. I admire this actor, and it is no sycophancy, I think his talent verges on genius. In the film, Benoît is extremely serious and available. Once I got rid of the intimidation he provoked in me during the first scenes, a great complicity grew between us. Alessandro Nivola has been exemplary. He is American, and I know how difficult it is to be at ease acting in a language other than yours. He staggered me with his capacity of adaptation and the sincerity of his acting. Moreover, he is a great professional and the man is adorable.

Q: Actors working with Anne Fontaine admire the quality of her direction of actors.

A: Indeed, Anne has allowed me to develop the nature of Chanel by searching different aspects to this role, by shading the emotions, being fragile and sweet and at the same time authoritarian and proud. The fact that a woman directed this movie is already a great advantage in expressing how difficult it was to be of ‘the weaker sex’ at that time. The intelligence of Anne Fontaine, her finesse, her global vision of the character and the story have been of utmost importance in her direction of the film.