Coco Before Chanel - Audrey Tautou
Coco Chanel (Audrey Tautou) © Warner Bros

As a little girl Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel was sent with her sister to an orphanage in the heart of France. As a cabaret singer she performed for an audience of drunken soldiers. As a young courtesan to Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde) she lived among the idle and decadent. She was a woman who knew she would never be anyone’s wife, refusing marriage even to Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola), the love of her life. A rebel who dressed in her loves’ clothes, she went on to become the legendary couturier who embodied the modern woman. Actress Audrey Tautou admits that the character of Coco Chanel has been ‘hovering around’ her for several years. Finally, when director/writer Anne Fontaine approached her about doing her movie, the opportunity was too irresistible to turn down.

Were you apprehensive at all about playing a character that had really existed?

I wanted to give my own interpretation of this character, keeping in mind that the spectator had to recognize 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.

So much has been said about Coco Chanel, how did you imagine her yourself?

Coco Before Chanel - Audrey Tautou and Alessandra Nivola
Audrey Tautou and Alessandra Nivola © Warner Bros

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’Irreguliere; 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’m 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 of her. So, I decided to look only at the photographs and give free rein to my imagination

We see Coco Chanel change as the formative years go by. How did you wish to mark this evolution of her character?

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.

Your two male partners are very different actors. How was it to work with them?

Coco Before Chanel - Benoit Poelvoorde and Audrey Tautou
Benoit Poelvoorde and Audrey Tautou © Warner Bros

I was very happy to work with Benoit Poelvoorde. I admire this actor, and it is no sycophancy, I think his talent verges on genius. In the film, Benolt 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. Alessandra Nivola has been exemplary. He’s 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.

What was it like working with Anne Fontaine?

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 has been of utmost importance in her direction of the film.


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.