09/25/2009 02:40 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Gamine before Icon: Audrey Tautou on CoCo Chanel's Early Years


The very name "Chanel" evokes boucle suits, chunky costume jewelry, and perhaps even a whiff of No. 5, the signature fragrance that to this day is sold somewhere worldwide every 30 seconds . "Coco" Chanel (1883-1971) the fashion icon, was also Gabrielle Chanel, orphan and outcast, more likely to be seen in menswear when the style was to wear a corset. She never married and she rarely ever talked about her childhood. But it's precisely the fashion designer's formative years that fascinate director Anne Fontaine, who knew she would cast Audrey Tautou in the title role of Coco Before Chanel prior to even writing the script.

Fontaine says that it is Audrey's "will, her audacity and the density of her gaze" that convinced her Tautou could portray the legendarily intense Chanel. I spoke with Tautou recently in between the film's Tokyo debut and its opening night in Los Angeles. Exhausted from a full day of interviews in her non native tongue she still displayed that poise and intensity yet her relief at being able to do our interview in French was endearingly unmistakable . I've tried to leave some of the more evocative words and expressions she used in describing her attraction to the role and what she learned about the woman behind the legend.

Do you think Americans appreciate her contributions to the world of fashion? Do they care about who she was?
Yes I think everyone understands to what extent she was avant-garde and when I see the desires she had to be independent-- to not depend on men .....these are universal . Coco Chanel was a Romanesque heroine. She was poor, she lost her mom, her father left her in an orphanage, so she was self made. These things are completely universal--it's so human--everyone understands.

What did you do in terms of research to prepare for the role?
I read mostly the biography by [her close friend] Edmonde Charles Roux about the youth of Chanel and then voila I tried to get all the pictures, to see the archives and from that I tried to draw out her essence. There was something in how she held herself--a natural elegance that is surprising when you see her photo; it's this intensity of gaze that is striking so I tried to copy her physically. I wanted to portray her poise but also to know her faults and vulnerabilities.

How did you most relate?
It was the desire to be independent, to be free, to depend on no one. Also a certain strength of character and her direct manner of speaking

Was there anything that surprised you about her ?

What surprised me about her character is that vital need she had to lie about her past and to hide her origins.So that took me aback because she was also someone who came across as very honest and straight, so there's that incredible paradox that drew me to her.


Why did she fight to keep her past so hidden?
I have no idea. I actually asked someone who knew Chanel for years and he did not really know either. It could have been that she was embarrassed or those moments were too painful. Her childhood was very rough and perhaps it was to forget about that suffering. She also didn't want to become a cliche of the poor little thing that became a success...I don't know but it was something really vital, essential with her.

Tell me about the final scene when we see Chanel surrounded by all of her creations.

We filmed in the rue Cambon , the boutique stairs and mirrors were designed by Chanel herself so it was a very special day. There were women who worked a long time with her and came to watch us as well. That day really stuck with me.


What I like about Coco Chanel is that she really understood the language of clothes--the conversations you can have through what you wear....

Of course, yes, because her clothes were the first way she had to gain a freedom that she wanted for so long. She didn't have money--that's not how she got her start--and she wasn't born with some place in high society, but she got it through clothing. Her designs are not about artifice though, they have something essential; and the reflection of her desire for liberty. And to me that's what a modern woman is all about.


Coco Before Chanel opens today in NY and LA.