Coco Before Chanel Director ANNE FONTAINE Interview
A few weeks back, I got a chance to participate in a roundtable with COCO BEFORE CHANEL director Anne Fontaine.
She talked about her decision to focus on the early years of Coco Chanel, working with Audrey Tautou, the creation of the costumes, and much more.
Coco Before Chanel comes out to theaters this Friday, September 25, 2009, but until then, enjoy the interview below.
Why are you so interested in Coco Chanel?
Anne Fontaine: I think it was when I was very young I had the luck to meet Chanel’s last assistant, Lilou Marquand, who worked with her a long time and who also lived with her. She was very close to Gabrielle Chanel and I heard about this for a long time, since I was very young. I felt very curious about her because she was so original for her time, so new. At this point I didn’t think about doing a movie about her but I was impressed, like a personality, like someone who is very complex and it’s very incredible, this success story and then this tragedy underneath. At the beginning, also she was so poor. I knew, as everyone, Chanel as this old woman, very tough, cigarettes but when you discover who she was at the beginning, a courtesan; it’s amazing what she has built with her own destiny. It was revolutionary for a woman of this time.
When did you decide to focus on the early years of Coco Chanel?
Anne Fontaine: Well, when we had the idea to do the movie I felt immediately that I had to make a choice on a part of her life because she lived a long time. Eighty seven years old. I didn’t want to make a film of her whole life. I prefer to read through her and inside of her and not express every part. I thought the use of Chanel even for the French was more unknown, mysterious. Many people, they don’t know about who she was and for me to explore that, gave me some more freedom and I very much like the relationship she had with these two men, Etienne Balsan and Arthur Capel.
I thought also that the fashion at this moment was on the life, not on her life, not on the shows, fashion shows. That doesn’t interest me. It’s better to find out how she creates her style on herself first, how she needs to create because she was so poor. She had two dresses and the way that she transforms the dresses, it was more interesting and creative for me. Also, how her vocation came to her. She never dreamed to be a stylist. She didn’t care. She thought to sew was for common women, which was not for someone like her. She dreamed in another destiny. She wanted to be an art performer.
An actress, a singer. I like the idea that somebody who is so famous, like a French icon that never dreamed to be…she had no idea that this fashion would be what made her famous. She only knew how to sew because she was always poor. She learned that. She had a lot of talent with that, but she didn’t imagine, she had no idea of her future, that it was on her and she became the new way to be a woman.
What qualities about her do you admire the most?
Anne Fontaine: I think of course the originality. To be so singular at this period, it was difficult because all women were completely on the men’s desires. You have to be very strong and be very audacious to be like she was. I like the way that she’s funny and she knows how to answer everything. No education. Only by herself. I admire that because it’s very difficult, even today, to begin so poor and to be able to construct yourself in another society. Don’t be a victim.
Any interest in exploring the rest of her life?
Anne Fontaine: I’m very interested in other parts of her life. But I think to make a movie is to make a choice and choose an angle, make a choice with a point of view and I don’t think I’m going to do all the parts. I’m not going to be the director that does after her thirties, after her fifties, the sixties. No. I think I always will sleep with her in my mind because for me it was like I met her. Of course I’m too young to have met her but it’s like she’s a part of my life and that’s enough for me.
Can you talk about working with Audrey Tatou? What was the process of working together on this project?
Anne Fontaine: The first thing was to think about her. I thought, when I imagined a movie about Chanel, I thought if I didn’t have a good actress I couldn’t start. If you don’t have somebody who is completely true on the part, not imitating the part but true you can’t start. It’s not possible because Chanel, to me, was so special and special physically, so unique. I felt instinctively that Audrey had these qualities but I never met her. When I met her, after ten minutes with the way she looked at me, the way she was I think tough enough, the way she was fragile, the body very thin, and with these eyes so intense; I felt that I had found her. It was like a reincarnation of Gabrielle Chanel for me. That helps me a lot. I wrote the script with her in mind. It was like I knew she was alive and it’s very different to play a part than to be a character actor.
I directed her of course. The fact that she hides the cash, she hides that she’s fragile. She doesn’t want to be a victim. It’s for that reason that she’s very tough and not a nice girl. It’s more complex than that. We have to find exactly the colors, but I think she’s perfect. I mean, really, and it’s not because I’ve done the movie. I’m sure that nobody could be so close to her than Audrey. You have to have another body, a body that’s very different from the body of women of this period. They were very voluptuous and in an another way more feminine and she was the first androgynous women in fashion.
Did her sister ever get married?
Anne Fontaine: Yes, with this Baron but fifteen years after Chanel –
After Chanel is already famous?
Anne Fontaine: Yes. She has to wait a long time until the Baron’s parents die, as Chanel says. It’s very interesting, the sister and Chanel. They are from the same parents, the same origins, the same childhood at the orphanage and one is a classic woman. She dreams of having a good husband, a life very banal. She believes in feelings and in love. The other one, no. She is not like that. She loves her sister but she thinks that she’s naïve. She thinks that love is always a mistake and when she felt love she was completely surprised that it happened to her because she’s very protected. She had a very, very big tragedy to be abandoned by her father. She loved her father. He said that one day he would come back and he never came. She always lies about that. She said that he was in fortune in America, that he works. The sister is a woman of this period, not more. You see the difference with somebody who has a temperament exceptional and the other one who is more normal, more casual.
Can you talk about the costumes because you had to get it right?
Anne Fontaine: Of course we had to invent what it was before Chanel, what inspired her and we have to know very well Chanel’s style to go at the beginning, at the birth of that. It was very interesting because it was to create something. It’s part of her life and her art in a sort of way to be the first trousers, the first pajamas. That was very exciting to see on her and when I saw Audrey wear these clothes I thought that it was incredibly modern. It’s like I can use today exactly the same, the striped t-shirt from the fish man. It’s so close to us in this society. It’s incredible. She’s one century in advance.
We designed everything with drawings and she showed me. We had of course some pictures of Chanel when she was young. For example when she sings at the beginning we transform but it was in the same spirit. It’s the first time of my life that fashion, not fashion but clothes are absolutely important, more than usual in a movie because you have a historical responsibility. One day Karl Lagerfeld wants to see what we’ve done as drawings. He looks like that and goes, ‘Very good, very good, very good, very good.’
At the end of the movie, of course, there are as you maybe know, the clothes were all done by Chanel herself. They came from the museum of Chanel from the last fashion show. All the clothes that you see were in the conservatory of Chanel and I went there and I could see everything under plastics. Nobody can see them because it’s not a museum. It’s a conservatory and it makes a very strong impression on me to see all the work from so many years. It’s amazing to see that.
Do you feel being a female director gave you a different perspective on Chanel than a man?
Anne Fontaine: I think that men can be very deep also but maybe to be a woman you understand better what it is to have another kind of body. And when you’re a woman you know what it means to have corsets and everything like that. You can’t breathe anymore. I never think that in other movies but maybe this one, the fact that I can understand more deeply maybe and it helped for me to speak through her.
I talked to a man who saw the film. He felt that she used men. I didn’t feel that way. But how did you find a balance with that?
Anne Fontaine: What I like is that she uses them, of course, in a certain way but she has no choice because she’s a courtesan and that’s like a whore almost. It’s a very pretty word to say but the truth is that it’s that. In the cabarets. At this period, they were very poor and it was very frequent that it happened. When she met Etienne Balsan she’s completely without a future. No future at all. She sews but she doesn’t care. She sings but in a very bad, low class cabaret and she had the ambition to meet somebody someday to go to the capital in Paris. You feel that. He’s there. Of course she would’ve been stupid, I think, not to use him but she uses him in a way with a kind of relation…sometimes they were still wearing clothes, too. He fell in love with her and she fell in love with another man. Also, the other man will be her mentor, the first that put money on her and believed in her.
You can say of course that it’s to use men but I do the same as a director. When I see a man who has money to put up my movie. I don’t have to sleep with him, but you know, it’s because she’s a survivor and she wants to be independent and the contradiction at the beginning of her is that she is independent because she has no money. No one thinks that she could work by herself at the beginning because it was not possible for a woman to have an ambition if you’re in such a lower class.
How did Alessandro Nivola get involved in the project?
Anne Fontaine: I was looking for an English actor. In England I never find an actor who can speak French enough to play the part. It was horrible. They have accents. Like you kill yourself. So not sexy. Terrible. They’re good actors but in French they lose all their charm. One day I did a casting here in New York, and one day someone spoke about Alessandro Nivola and I saw him in some movies, but of course American movies. I said, ‘Oh, if he speaks French a little, I don’t know how much maybe it’s not stupid to think about him.’ After that he called me on the phone. I was in Paris and I heard his voice and it was a very light conversation but he can speak in a not too bad way. I said to him, ‘Okay, come to Paris and we do some tests to see.’ He was a little afraid. He said, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘I’m not sure I will take you, but I’m sure you have to come to speak with me better.’
I made him improvise and speak straightaway with me in French. I said to him, ‘I don’t care. I speak with you and you have to answer and I’ll film you.’ This was the test and after that I felt he was very different and very good for the part. Also, I helped him not only to talk better French of course, but also to walk like a British gentlemen because he walked like a cowboy at the beginning. I thought it was not possible. He said to me, ‘Oh, it’s awful because I’m completely observed in everything and I can’t be free.’ But he’s very intelligent and I very much liked working with him.