Today, as the film “Coco Before Chanel” is released, movie-goers will be treated to an inside, cinematic look at the person of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel before she was the infamous French fashion designer, still worshipped even today. But even for the film’s stars, the backstory of the woman who grew up in a broken home, poor, who latched herself to a rich man (Étienne Balsan, played by Benoît Poelvoorde) as a mistress — the experience was truly eye-opening.
French actress Audrey Tautou, who still enjoys fame in America for her roles in 2001’s “Amelie” and 2006’s “The Da Vinci Code,” still finds some of Chanel’s life a mystery, even after playing her in the Anne Fontaine-directed, French language film.
“I don’t understand why a woman, who’s so proud and independent, could bear to be a mistress. I don’t really understand why she worked so hard to hide her past,” Tautou said recently during a press junket in New York.
Before she began work on the film, “I was not familiar with [Chanel] in fact I realized very quickly that I didn’t know that much. My idea of her was kind of false thought she was coming from the high bourgeoisie… but in fact, her vocation was not something she was born with. The elements and her unpredictable talent put her on this road. It’s really surprising when you think of the empire she created.”
“Coco Before Chanel” (French title: “Coco Avant Chanel”) was shot in sweeping, eyepopping locations in Normandie and Paris, the perfect backdrop for understated acting, elegant costumes and bold moments in history in pre-war France. But central to the film, and for Chanel’s budding career, was her love affair with an Englishman, Arthur “Boy” Capel, performed by American Alessandro Nivola.
“[Boy was] the one who revealed to her that she had this talent and she has to be confident with it. He gave her money to invest. It was really real love… She was a real lover.”
While the character of Chanel was tormented in her start to a career in the film, Nivola was breaking his back just to prepare for his role. On top of learning to speak fluent French, there was also the horseback riding, piano playing, waltzing, sportscar-driving and generally Renaissance nature of Capel.
“This role was so technically demanding in terms of what this man did well,” Nivola said. The 37-year-old actor had a tutor to help him with his French grammar before shooting started, and then it was off to the races.
“I remember sitting at lunch for the first couple of weeks and the actors would be cracking jokes and I’d pretend to get it and laugh. You find yourself rigid with fear and it was with that atmosphere that I was going in with the scenes. On the one hand, I went home every day feeling constipated. On the other hand, I went home to an amazing apartment in Paris. I was part of a project that was being done in an expert way. Everybody down to the person getting the coffee had their head screwed on right.”