Director and co-writer Anne Fontaine discusses Coco Before Chanel, her stunning exploration of the life of Gabrielle Chanel, the headstrong orphan who went on to become a timeless symbol of success, freedom and style.
Why were you interested in the character of Gabrielle Chanel?
I was lucky to meet Lilou Marquand, when I was very young; she had been the closest collaborator of Chanel throughout the last part of her life and later wrote a book on their relation entitled Chanel told me. So every day, for a while, I would hear something about this mythical personality.
I also carefully read the book by Paul Morand, The Allure of Chanel, one of the authors who knew best how to express the incredible personality of Mademoiselle. It was not so much the fashion as the characteristics of this exceptional woman that interested me. I had been particularly touched by the fact that she was a self-made person. This girl, coming from the heart of the French countryside, poor, uneducated, but endowed with an exceptional personality, was destined to be ahead of her time and of a society where women were the prisoners of alienating behaviours and clothing.
The quasi-Balzac style of her path intrigued me in particular. I remember putting up photos of the young Chanel on the walls of my bedroom, but I never thought I would make a whole film on this subject. Many years later, during a conversation on Chanel with Carole Scotta and Caroline Benjo, the producers of Haut et Court, they asked me whether I would be interested in developing a project recounting her path. My interest for the character was then reinvigorated. I asked them to give me time to think about it, pointing out that I felt it would be a mistake to try to take in the entire life of Coco Chanel.
I had to think whether it was possible to stick to the first period of her life, the training years, what had happened before Chanel herself understood her dazzling destiny. So I went back and read her biography by Edmonde Charles-Roux “Chanel and Her World: Friends, Fashion, and Fame”. The other imperative condition was to find an actress to embody such a character, and not someone who would ape or make a pale imitation of Chanel.
Audrey Tautou was obviously the ideal actress to portray Coco Chanel.
Yes, and Audrey very naturally embodies the androgynous—something that did not exist at the time and is essential to understand how Coco Chanel invented her style. Chanel drew her inspiration from her own personality; she composed her style on her body, her difference, and her vitality. Today androgyny is in fashion, but at the time of Chanel, women were curvaceous and plump. Chanel also launched the fashion of short hair. The actress had to combine slender silhouette and strong temper, this iron hand in a velvet glove.
Audrey has the slimmest waist in the world! She has also this “little black bull” side to her, as Paul Morand used to say of Chanel, a grace, finesse, and an irrefutable charisma. On my first encounter with Audrey, her will, her audacity, and the density of her gaze that goes through you struck me. Chanel looked at everything. Her culture was not one of knowledge, but a culture of observation. I had not yet written a single line of the screenplay when I met Audrey, but I knew that if she gave me her trust and if the production agreed to stick to the years of apprenticeship, I could then embark on the adventure of my first period movie.
You chose to move away from the biopic aspects of telling this story and stick precisely to her creativity and the genesis of this fabulous career.
Because in those years, there are numerous highly romantic factors, the first being, of course, the youth of a provincial girl living in extreme poverty.
Chanel’s childhood is worthy of romantic literature.
Yes, Chanel is worthy of the great heroines of literature. She immediately got through the worst. The young Gabrielle loses her mother through exhaustion by childbirth and sickness, and soon after her father, a market vendor, abandons her. She is placed in the orphanage of the Aubazine monastery where the canoness taught her the meticulous art of sewing. Then, we see her trying her luck in a cabaret of Moulins where she sings her famous ‘Coco qui a vu Coco’ in front of an audience of military men on a spree!
Writing the screenplay about a famous character, you must have had in mind that the audience knows the end of the story. Still you managed to create tension in that.
Suspense is very real in the life of this heroine: How will she make it? How will she overcome her ignorance? It’s interesting to see that Chanel, whose name today is emblematic of Haute Couture, was not really interested in fashion at first. She wanted to be a dancer, a singer or an actress. After she dropped her artist’s dreams, her dazzling career was nearly built without her knowing it. What particularly interested me was to watch Coco build her destiny before our eyes, by inventing as she went along. Nothing was programmed with her; she is not pursuing a career to reach success, she is inventing. She does not have the ambition or the tools to conform to the world of the bourgeoisie—its doors were closed to her—so she drew attention to herself to start at the top of provocation. She does not want to abide by this world but to adapt it to her own personality. She also likes to take risks. I liked very much the idea that she was a clandestine when she started her journey in the world. When she arrives to Royallieu, Balsan forbids her to leave her bedroom. She forged her emblematic image upon the secrets of her origins; she always embellished the story of her childhood.
In the beginning, Coco Chanel is a kept woman.
Yes, it is a bit of a contradiction with the image we have today of Coco Chanel, an elegant woman dressed in a sober and chic suit who has built an empire of luxury on her independence; a woman who never got married. However, the young Chanel constructed herself supported by men whom she used at will. Actually, she was a courtesan. During the years at the Royallieu, Coco exercised her charm on women and men, polished up her personality, and hardened her temper. The ‘demimondaines’ she used to meet in Royallieu wore lace dresses; so, in order not to ‘belong’ to their circle, she invented dresses for herself that were so simple they over-emphasized decency. From then on, she will always dress as a reasonable young woman, wearing one of those boater hats that she made herself and became the rage among her friends. She went against things in order to create. ‘What I hated I wanted to make out-of-date,’ she would say.
In her designs, Chanel never projected the image of the ideal woman as designers do in general. She built her mythical style upon her particular characteristics and her difference.
She was different. Chanel turned this difference into a fundamental asset, though it must have been a terrible suffering for her. We worked on that transformation with Audrey. At first, she appears as a little peasant girl, unpolished with a beehive hairstyle; then, we see how her style clashes with the other women only to become, in the last part of the movie, the incarnation of French chic. I thought it was interesting to give shape to this evolution without over-explaining things. Little by little, everything in her was grace, and what people looked at was Chanel.
Your movie is also based on a beautiful and tragic love story.
We watch her meet the two men who will deeply change her destiny: Balsan, a rich eccentric gentleman farmer played by Benoît Poelvoorde; and this young Englishman, Arthur Capel, called ‘Boy,’ the love of her life, interpreted by Alessandro Nivola. This man believes in her and that is important, but she loses him. ‘I lost everything with the loss of Capel’ said Chanel. Then, Chanel throws herself into work. What mainly surprised and interested me was that everything Chanel invented came from those years. Later, her fashion adapted and she developed her style; she became a professional. That is the reason why this period of her life is livelier and more moving. There is something within her that is extremely determined and vulnerable at the same time. Chanel has an incredible vitality built on her suffering.
A woman who cried her eyes dry’ is what people said about her.
Yes, and Chanel overcomes her pain through work, precisely! I like the way she treats misfortune and turns suffering into creativity. That is another interesting point in dealing with this part of her life because when she became a celebrity, she inevitably became a bit mechanical, tough and isolated.
This woman also had a cutting humour.
Chanel has a lot of irony. In the movie, she tells her sister, ‘The only interesting think about love is to make love. It’s such a pity you have to have a man for that!’ It shows her sense of aphorism. Chanel seduced with her biting replies. At their first encounter, she tells Balsan, ‘When I’m bored I feel very old,’ so he asks her, ‘And how old are you now?’ She replies, ‘A thousand years!’
Balsan begins somewhat indifferent but grows very close to Chanel.
I loved creating the character of Balsan, about whom we know very little. Somehow for him, too, love does not exist. He loves his horses; he loves rather naughty parties; and at the same time, the party man hides a deeper emotionalism and humanity. When I thought of this man, I immediately thought of Benoît Poelvoorde. He was the only one who could render both the agitator and endearing side in him. It is through her observation of the little world around Balsan that Chanel will forge her style, drawing inspiration, for example, from the light and functional fabrics of sportswear, modifying riding outfits, or borrowing Balsan’s pyjamas. It is while looking into Balsan’s wardrobes that she first improvises her boyish outfit.
With Boy Capel, she finally allows herself to love.
It is actually in a very candid way that she falls madly in love with Boy Capel, and at the same time she doesn’t believe in love. She wants to avoid the traps into which her mother fell. She saw her suffer and be abandoned several times by Coco’s father, a vendor who went from market to market, and from woman to woman. That is when she understood the condition of women, seeing her mother suffer and die in atrocious pain. So, very early on, she must have said to herself: ‘Not me, never!’ That is the reason why, maybe, she saw before the others that the modern woman would not go on like that any longer. Always against the tide, Chanel decides to celebrate the freedom and independence of women. The loss of the man of her life is yet another blow of destiny.
What liberties did you take while working on the screenplay?
In order to interpret a famous person, I had to liberate myself from the diktat of the biography if I wanted to get the freshness back. With my co-screenwriters, we had to invent some things, go against the chronology, modify, or give more density to some characters.
The role played by Marie Gillain is a mix of the real sister of Chanel and Adrienne, her aunt, who was her age and shared the same ambition to make it in life. The character of Emilienne, interpreted by Emmanuelle Devos, is inspired by the famous comedian Gabrielle Dorziat and Emilienne d’Alençon, a dancer and great courtesan. Brilliantly portrayed by Alessandro Nivola, Boy Capel, who has such importance in the life of Chanel, actually was no longer with her. We know very little about the first years of her life, and Chanel lied all the time. She used to say something I find sublime: ‘I invented my life because my I didn’t like my life.’
Your direction respects and celebrates the motto of Coco Chanel, which was: ‘You always have to remove, to strip, and never add.’ Like her, you don’t go for the superfluous, the frills, and the pathos.
It was very important to me that the film looked like her, no fuss or aesthetical lyricism. The style of CHANEL is recognizable among all by its rigour, the elegant simplicity of lines. In the scene at the hippodrome or the beach in Deauville, we noticed the total opposition of the style of CHANEL with the dresses of those women and their elaborate headdresses, all the frills and corsets that cut them in half! They had a decorative posture, whereas Chanel was concerned with the existence of the individual. You had to beat the heart of things, all the time, with the movie.
You said that sobriety and minimalism, which determined the originality of her designs, came from the architecture of the Aubazine abbey and the dresses of nuns and boarders in white shirts and black skirts.
Yes. It is important to visualize the little girl in this environment. I wanted to stick to the starkness, with those dominant colours of black and white, which were to become the quintessence of the style of CHANEL. Later, we see her in Moulins taking one of her dresses and adding to it a white collar and white cuffs from a man’s shirt to fabricate a disguise for Emilienne, i.e. the orphanage costume. The famous little black dress was taking shape and was going to become her signature design.
With your reading of Chanel’s love life, we may wonder whether her ‘little black dress’—which was her glory—was not designed for herself, Chanel, a woman so marked by loneliness?
In any case, I shot all the couture part in that way, by associating her creation to her life, and particularly to the very violent event she suffered through the accident of Capel. There is a beauty in the way she turns this drama into an obsession with the black, her cult colour. This relation gives a lyrical dimension to her clothes, whereas, by definition, a garment does not have such dimension. What sublimates a garment is when it comes to life once worn. Movement is what Chanel brought to women’s clothes. Freedom is what she offered to women.
In the final sequence, a fashion parade presents the collection that established her fame as the years went by. In this sequence, sitting on her famous staircase, Coco Chanel savours her triumph while reviewing moments of her past.
In the beginning of the movie, she is evolving; in the end, she is metamorphosed. She becomes Coco Chanel and her story cannot be dissociated from the century that is starting. This sequence feels like a daydream: we see her at work and all of a sudden this work generates a parade that is not totally realistic, as various epochs and styles are mixed. With some anticipation, she appears already in the stature of the myth. I tried to construct the end in an allegorical manner to eventually come close to some state of grace. Chanel is triumphant but we sense a certain melancholy behind that. The way I dealt with the moment following her relationship with Boy shows that the only existential alternative she had was to get to work. Sewing is a very humble art: cutting, tearing, assembling with pins, sewing…This humility has something rather beautiful and the challenge was for me to let it show on screen. I tried to recount it in the last part of the film by showing this minimum, this simplicity and, at the same time, the density and tension. On Audrey’s face at the end, there is already this determination, an asceticism and concentration that will allow Coco to reach the essence of herself and become the legendary figure everyone knows, the first woman in a man’s world, who built an empire that still bears her name today.
This story of apprenticeship, where the heroine shows her tenacity, her will, and her faith in herself to take her destiny in hand, can interest any woman.
Absolutely. In fact, Chanel used to say, as stated in the book of Paul Morand, ‘My life is the story—often the tragedy—of a woman on her own, her miseries, her grandeur, her uneven and fascinating struggle against herself, against men, attractions, weaknesses, and dangers that arise from all sides.’ Any man or woman can recognize himself, or herself, in that, or at least be moved by her love stories and by the rather fatal destiny she suffers at certain moments in the movie.
Did the Maison CHANEL accompany you on this project?
The collaboration of CHANEL was indispensable to us, particularly for the final sequence where it was unthinkable not to have dresses by the CHANEL label. We shot in the famous staircase. In this sequence, all the dresses come from the Conservatory of CHANEL. I met Karl Lagerfeld several times. We showed him the sketches of the clothes my costume designer, Catherine Leterrier, was making. When Karl saw pictures of Audrey Tautou, he told me she was the only ‘true Chanel.’ We collaborated in a very natural way with the Maison CHANEL, but it did not influence my artistic approach.
Coco Avant Chanel is your second feature produced with Warner Bros. after La Fille de Monaco.
Yes. I am very lucky that Warner Bros. renews their trust in me. It is reassuring to see that a major studio follows you on a project where we are taking risks, since it is my first period movie.
Audrey Tautou and Benoît Poelevoorde have also trusted you.
I wrote the character of Balsan with Benoît in mind. I have had the chance to appreciate the extent of his talent while directing him on Entre ses mains (In His Hands). We both wanted to work together again. I was rather nervous the day I handed a first version of the script to Audrey Tautou. I told her, ‘You have the right to refuse, but as I see no one who could play the part but you, I’ll quit if you say no.’
Luckily, Audrey reassured me very quickly! You know that Audrey comes from the same area as Chanel. She grew up in Montluçon, 32 miles away from Moulins. Audrey told me, ‘I always thought I’d come across this character one day.’ She knew she was predestined for the role.
Coco Before Chanel is released July 31st