The answers, found in Anne Fontaine's new film Coco avant Chanel (a.k.a. Coco Before Chanel), may just surprise you. The film focuses on her early life: Coco (née Gabrielle) Chanel and her sister were abandoned in an orphanage at a young age. By young adulthood, the scrappy pair learned to scrape by, at times on sheer will alone. Part-time cabaret performer, part-time seamstress, Coco (Audrey Tautou: Amélie, The Da Vinci Code, Dirty Pretty Things) wormed her way (at great personal cost—she was a courtesan) into an aristocratic lifestyle, where she developed her unique, androgynous style. With the help of her lover, Boy Capel (Alessandro Nivola), Coco began to design clothes not only for herself, but for others, laying the foundation for her eventual world-of-fashion domination.
As portrayed by Tautou, Coco is a riveting young woman with charisma and sass to spare. Clearly a woman who was ahead of her time, her determination to be someone is on display, and knowing about her hardscrabble roots only make the story more impressive. At a recent roundtable in New York, Tautou, Fontaine and Nivola talked about the woman, her story and their admiration for all things Chanel.
Q: In America, we have rags-to-riches stories. Is this a story that people say could only happen in France?
Anne Fontaine: No, a self-made woman can happen anywhere, because it's a question of personality and originality. She was very audacious, [but] I don't think it's only a specifically French way to be. But her elegance, her style—I think that's very French. Because she came from a very little town in the center of France, she doesn't know anything about artistic and intellectual education. And the way she invents this style—very simple, very austere for this period—I think it's something very French in her character, and Audrey has that also, I think.