When Audrey walked in with that jaunty little step, she wore slender black pants and a gold blouse to drape her tiny frame. Her hair was black and stormy like her eyes, the eyes that so fit the role of Coco Chanel. She greeted everyone with a smile, and asked if it would be acceptable if she spoke to us through a translator. “I did like 23 interviews,” she explained, “and my answers were so stupid I was like—ah!” She rolled her eyes and shook her head of wild hair.
In the film, that hair was of the period, drawn back into a modest heap typical of a working seamstress, or free falling over her pajamas in long, waving strands. In the film, she looked extraordinarily like Chanel. But Tautou not only had to look the part, she had to play the legend. Or as her director (Anne Fontaine) stressed, she had to actually be Chanel. In fact, that was one of Fontaine’s two conditions under which she would agree to write and direct the story: she had to have the perfect actress. On being approached with the project, Fontaine told the producers, “If I had not [Tautou], if she doesn’t exist, I don’t want to write it.”
But of course, no matter how perfect Tautou was to fill the role, even she had to do her research, and her primary resource was the biography written by Edmonde Charles-Roux. When asked about the difficulty of playing a real person in time, of taking on the responsibility of portraying the truth about someone’s life, Tautou had an interesting response. Of course there’s always pressure playing a celebrity whom the public already believes they know. But, she said, “There’s actually some comfort in playing somebody who has existed and has a psychology that’s already there. But where I worked was on the border—the frontier between interpreting and finding, exploring this part of her life [the beginning] that not a lot of people knew about…” Because so much of Chanel’s youth, that history, was obscured by the lies she told. Chanel created fictions around her past, because, as Tautou explained, she did not like what she remembered. The actress read dozens of accounts on Coco’s life, and she admitted, “I could tell from the different books, who believed in the lies that Coco spread about herself and who didn’t. And in the case of Edmonde…he dispelled many of the lies that Coco was trying to set up.” So in a way, Tautou’s responsibility to historical truth was not so great that she could not afford some freedom in her interpretation of Coco. Chanel herself was changing the past. Tautou’s most serious responsibility, rather, was to the persona—perfecting the panache. And so she did.
That mysterious past was the other condition under which Fontaine agreed to take on the project of writing and directing a movie about Chanel. She wanted to choose a small part of her life. “It’s not possible,” said Fontaine, “to do a biography, about all 87 years of her, without…illustrating in a very superficial way.” And it could not be a small part of her life as the label or anyone else but the Young Coco, the pre-Chanel. Fontaine found that chapter of her life to be the most moving, “because she’s more insecure.” She went on to say, “When you are famous, for me, it [intrigues] me more to know who the person was at the beginning than at the end. For one reason: because at the end, everybody here knows something about her, and you want only to see that the actress looks like the pictures you have in mind. But when you are younger, you are more free to invent and to exist.”
Tautou agreed whole-heartedly, and that was why she fell in love with the project and signed on with Fontaine. But if she could have explored another part of Chanel’s life, Tautou said, “I was very moved by that very final chapter of Coco Chanel, when she was at the end of her life. For so many decades she was ahead of the times, but there’s a part towards the end where society not only caught up with her, it then surpassed her. And she changed.”
After seeing the film, I was aching for more of Coco. Wouldn’t that be an interesting story to tell… Ladies and Gentlemen, a sequel? Encore?