Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Legend before Her Fame: Coco before Chanel Roundtable

Coco Chanel is a name known throughout the world, and she had a singular impact on the world of fashion. The story behind her rise to fame is one that very few people know, and also a history with many gaps and holes. Director Anne Fontaine (“The Girl from Monaco”) was inspired to tell the unknown Chanel story after meeting Chanel’s late assistant. Fontaine was awed by how she was “independent, free, and original in a masculine way,” and adds that she likes “people who live, who are inventive – Chanel lies a lot. To love is to lie.” Fontaine describes a lifelong connection to Chanel, explaining, “I can do it since she’s been inside of me for a long a time.” Fontaine’s past work has been very personal, and therefore the undertaking of a larger-scale period piece was a new experience. She wanted period perfection so that nothing was inaccurate or wrong. But most of all, she wanted her star.

Fontaine told actress Audrey Tautou that if Tautou was interested in playing Chanel, she would make the film. Otherwise, she would pass. Tautou is best known for her enthusiastic lead roles in “Amélie” and “A Very Long Engagement,” and made a crossover to American cinema several years ago when she starred alongside Tom Hanks in “The Da Vinci Code.” Fontaine describes Tautou as “very French, incredibly thin, and a reincarnation.” Tautou does credit her casting in part to the physical resemblance between her and Chanel, pointing out that they’re both “gents de la terre” from deep France. Tautou is aware that she isn’t necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, and firmly believes that “to please everyone is to please no one.” She was adamant that she didn’t want to show only the strong Chanel that everyone knows, and this was the perfect opportunity for that. The movie tells the story of Chanel’s relationship with two men who treated her in very different ways, both of which shaped the person she became.

One of those men was “Boy” Capel, played by Alessandro Nivola. The actor, a native of Massachusetts, had a particularly transformative experience filming the movie among an almost entirely French cast and crew. Nivola explains that he is one of the few American actors who have worked overseas extensively, though his venture into international films wasn’t planned. He has played other aristocratic characters and become skilled with different accents, and therefore taking on the role of a Brit who speaks the entire time in French wasn’t as daunting a challenge. He did not, however, know French before accepting the role, and lied to Fontaine about his familiarity with the language. He quickly “hit the French grammar books,” and lived alone in Paris for months where he was forced to speak French on set all day. He was initially told by Fontaine that he “walked like a cowboy,” but describes the experience of making a film in France as “very civilized” and typically French. The film took four months to shoot, and without all of the long meals in between, he believes the film could have been completed in six weeks in the United States. He notes, however, that “French cinema is what American independent film bases itself on,” and that French films are translating very well in the United States. Nivola had a unique opportunity with his role as Chanel’s doomed love Capel, who “wasn’t so well known, where material was available but the performance didn’t need to be an impersonation.” Capel was only an influence on Chanel, and this isn’t primarily his story, but rather a look at the way he provided Chanel with an outlet for her creativity.

Fontaine discusses the difference between fashion and style, determining that “only style remains” if fashion is broken down into “personality and clothes.” Fontaine was never fascinated by fashion, and explains that Chanel created her own fashion to feel more alive in her time, and that to want to work as a woman at that time was something amazing. Tautou echoes Fontaine’s sentiments, classifying her personal relationship to fashion prior to making the film as distant. Now, style and clothes don’t intrigue her any more than ever before, but her way of looking at Chanel style and creations has changed, and she’s particularly awed by their singular nature. She attributes Chanel’s appeal to the fact that her sense of style comes from a woman who made clothes for herself first, and created a breakthrough way of seduction for women. Chanel was a woman unlike any other in her time, though modern women can still relate to her struggles. Nivola describes the modern career woman as “faced with the same kind of dilemma, to have an impact, or conform to normalcy.” Chanel certainly stood out, and a story that charts her journey from anonymous bar singer to fashion magnate is sure to stand out as well. “Coco Before Chanel” opens in select cities this Friday, September 25.

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