Audrey Tautou takes a seat on the garden patio of a room at the Four Seasons Hotel, slips off her ballet flats. Her new movie, Coco Before Chanel, is an elegant little black dress of a movie, simple but complex. At the center is Tautou as young Gabrielle Chanel, before the revolutionary menswear-inspired haute couture, before the fully articulated philosophy of pared down, practical luxury.
“The most difficult thing was to keep having inside me a kind of anger or chaos between Chanel’s doubts and her determination,” she says. “To feel that violence inside that she has to succeed. To become somebody without knowing how she will manage and which direction she will go.” She gazes off into the distance, watching the rich people being packed into expensive cars at the hotel’s front rotunda. She props one bare foot on the chair beside her and wiggles her toes.
That someone so easy on the eyes is an observer at heart is surprising. That Tautou had been asked to play Chanel in the past isn’t. “She has this ‘little black bull’ side to her,” the film’s director, Anne Fontaine, said recently. Today, in pristine white Chanel button-up shirt and faded black jeans, Tautou is impossibly tiny, with thighs as big as an ordinary woman’s arms.
“I didn’t want to make a movie about Chanel that would be a movie about her whole life,” she says. “I didn’t want to treat her in a superficial way. I did not want to fall into the clichés of the best moments of her life.” She pantomimes Chanel picking out the bottle of scent that would become her signature Chanel No. 5 perfume (the fragrance for which Tautou is now the official face), pretends to dab behind her ears.
“It was more of a character study,” she adds. “A portrait.”
The portrait’s broad outlines couldn’t be more familiar: orphaned little girl triumphs over humble, gloomy beginnings to become one of the most influential women in the world. But the details, the shadows, the nuances are uniquely Tautou’s. Early in the film, the wealthy man who would become one of Chanel’s two longtime lovers (Etienne Balsan, played by Benoit Poelvoorde) visits her in the dressmaker’s shop where she performs menial repairs. Chanel is on her knees, pinning a hem. “You like seeing me work down on all fours?” she teases him. It’s meant to be funny, but Tautou’s delivery has frustrated ambition and wounded raw ego behind it.
“I didn’t want to portray her as a rock,” Tautou says. “You understand? I wanted to make her much more fragile.”
When Chanel, a former cabaret singer, sings to Etienne in bed, it’s with a manic abandon that’s unsettling to watch. When she walks through his mansion for the first time, we see her falling in love with luxury, beginning to calculate, despite her resentment. Pride, in this film, is Coco Chanel’s greatest flaw, but it is also the source of her strength. Had history not worked in her favor, that pride would have been recast as hubris.
“The most impressive scene for me to shoot was the last scene, in the mythic stairs,” Tautou says. “This location is in Chanel’s shop. The real shop in Rue de Cambon in Paris. And the stairs and the mirrors are all designed by Chanel. The most challenge was in this scene. Why? Well, because I was supposed to be … to give … ah, comment dit-on?” She lapses into French.
“She says that it’s the scene in which the iconic Coco Chanel is born,” her translator offers. “It is the transition. It was very impressive because of the location. The people surrounding Audrey were people who had actually known the real Coco Chanel. The dresses that you see the models wearing were actual dresses that Chanel had made herself.”
Impressive as in intimidating?
“Yeah,” says Tautou. “I kept telling myself, this is my place. My home. And all these people are working for me. I was thinking, ‘I am the boss.’ Because I couldn’t let any little dust of doubt come into me. If I had been thinking, ‘Maybe I’m not good,’ or, ‘Maybe I’m going to be ridiculous,’ I would have been … crick!” She draws her finger across her throat in a slicing motion.
She talks for a while about her start as an actress, how for a long time she didn’t know precisely what it was that she wanted to do. She thought she might want to study monkeys, to be like Dian Fossey. In a minute, Anne Fontaine arrives, ready to whisk her star away to a speaking engagement.
“Can I take a picture?” Tautou asks me, lifting her old Rollei camera. “You know, it’s my little collection.” She takes a photo of each person who interviews her. She’s been doing so since the beginning of her career.
Asked what she does with the pictures, she laughs, then says in a sing-song way, “Nothing!”
“Check her Facebook page,” jokes the translator, as she snaps.
“Thank you,” murmurs Tautou, demure once again. “Very kind of you.”