Audrey Tautou - Style with substance

Audrey Tautou plays Coco Chanel in a movie about the designer's beginnings. She tells Chris Sullivan of her fascination with the icon
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The first thing Audrey Tautou does is leap out of her seat and declare: "I love your glasses! I want some. Where did you get them?" At five feet three inches she is petite rather than small, slight as opposed to thin. Excruciatingly gamine, she would make the perfect Peter Pan. Her jet-black hair is cut characteristically short, brushed forward like Audrey Hepburn's in Funny Face, her lips are femme-fatale scarlet, and a white lace blouse perfectly complements old-school Levi's that hang impeccably over a pair of black 1940s-style high heels. Tautou looks immaculately stylish, which must've come in handy for her latest role as the legendary French fashion icon, Coco Chanel, in the hugely successful Gallic period piece, Coco Before Chanel, directed by Anne Fontaine.

"Once Audrey agreed to play Coco I knew I could do the film as I envisioned," said the director just a few minutes before I met Tautou. "I was struck by her will, her audacity, and the density of her gaze that goes straight through you. She has the same impertinent look, the same androgynous appeal, the same toughness and innate sense of style. She is the only person to play Coco."

Undoubtedly, Tautou pulls of the role with uncommon aplomb, delivering a subtle yet multi-layered performance that, with just the arch of a manicured eyebrow, quietly provokes all manner of questions about the icon that some might rather avoid. Did she hate men? Did she use men? Did she sleep her way to success? Did she step on any and all to rise to the top? Or was she purely a product of her environment who had to use all at her disposal to succeed?

And yet the film avoids the most controversial aspects of the pioneering designer's life. Absent is her notorious affair during the war with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German officer and Nazi spy, as is her subsequent arrest for war crimes and her acquittal, before trial, via the intervention of the British royal family.

Instead, the film plumps for what is arguably a better story, and deals with Chanel's origins. It begins, like a 19th-century romantic novel, as, Gabrielle "Coco" Bonheur Chanel, born in a poor house on August 19th 1883, is abandoned in the orphanage of the Roman Catholic monastery of Aubazine.

The narrative moves swiftly on to her short career as a bar singer (she took her name from a song she sang in cabaret) and covers her life as kooky concubine to the immensely rich playboy, Etienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde). The film concludes in 1920 after Coco's romance with her financial backer, British millionaire Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola), ends when he dies in a car crash, leaving her financially free to revolutionise the way women dressed, thought and behaved.

"Premises of projects about Coco Chanel had been submitted to me for several years," explains the bubbly Tautou, now perched on the arm of her chair. "But I did not want to do a biopic, you know – participating in some sort of saga recounting her life from birth to death. Chanel lived for 87 years! We would have fallen into the clichés that have punctuated her path. No, no, no. I was secretly hoping to get an offer to play Coco but with a particular point of view. Because it's her modernity that fascinates me, her spirit, her ambition and the position she gave women."

"Chanel had to fight against conventions then that were so very paralysing for women." continues Tautou, now standing. "So, when Anne Fontaine explained how she intended to treat the subject, I immediately agreed. She wanted to avoid the obvious truisms and some sort of mimetic interpretation of Chanel, and was determined to concern herself solely with her beginning – the period when Coco was building herself and asserting her personality – which for me is the most interesting period in her life."

Of course, problems arise when actors depict such national, yet eminently controversial icons. Did she ever fell the need to make her a little less scheming, I ponder?

"One thing that never bothered me was making her seem that appealing as a person," Tautou replies, dark eyes sparkling. "She was very determined and strong and authoritarian but was still the poor little girl from an orphanage in the middle of nowhere surrounded by all these rich aristocrats, and had to learn to be hard, to hide her vulnerability behind a façade. I always loved her style but I was more interested in her character than the fashion she created, as the story of her life is far greater than simply being a story of fashion. And you don't have to be that smart to see that behind this façade of a strong, rude, tough woman there was something she was trying to hide, and that behind her fictional life that she herself falsified there is something else."

Tautou read every book, listened to every recording and watched very sliver of footage regarding her subject but, after coming up against a web of contradictions simply took her inspiration from early photographs of the fledgling icon. "She was such a complex character, and full of contradictions and denials," explains Tautou. "And as she got older she told so many enormous lies about her past. My head was in a spin."

A dead ringer for the young Coco, Tautou, whose mother is a teacher and father a dentist, grew up in the south-central French countryside in, Montluçon, Auvergne, 32 miles away from the bar in Moulin where Chanel used to sing. And while both are born under the sign of Leo comparisons, if we are to believe Tautou, are minimal.

"Auvergnat people are very single-minded, and hard-working, so we have that in common," chirps Tautou pulling a quizzical face. "And the only other thing is that Coco didn't plan to become a great designer, just as I didn't plan to become an actress. I had no clue that fame would land on me. I was like everybody, trying to move forward with doubts, questions, and uncertainties. As a child I wanted to study monkeys but I changed my mind with the onset of hormones and suddenly I was a teenager and I found partying more interesting than nature and got into art and theatre and movies. In fact, when I passed my exams my parents gave me a special summer placement in a theatre in Paris."

So impressed was her teacher that he invited Tautou to return in the autumn. "I persuaded my parents that I should come back to Paris,' she remembers. "So I read literature in university while studying acting at the same time."

After a few television roles, in 1999 she landed the role of Marie in the Tonie Marshall feature, Venus Beauty Salon, and received a César (a French Oscar) for Most Promising Actress. Consequently she slipped nicely into the character of the eponymous Amélie in director's Jean-Pierre Jeunet's fable about a shy but philanthropic Montmartre waitress, which changed her life forever. A massive international box-office success, it became the highest-grossing French-language film ever released in the United States.Tautou' s Louise Brooks-like bob haircut, huge, mischievous, almond shaped eyes and puckish grin were everywhere.

" My character in the movie was loved all over the world and I was suddenly very, very popular," she exhales, still slightly gobsmacked. "I was surprised more because I did not expect such a thing to happen so quickly.

"But there were good and bad things that came with that – none of which I was used to," she adds with a sigh, recalling the intense press attention. "In France we have a law which doesn't allow the press to publish a photo that you didn't approve. It lets the paparazzi take the picture, but if they publish this picture, you have the choice to sue the newspaper. So me, I always sued them."

Since Amélie , Tautou, apart from her impeccable rendering of an illegal Turkish immigrant in Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things and a role in The Da Vinci Code, has made a film a year in France, settling for domestic notoriety rather than international fame. "I am happy doing what I do and as long as I keep working. It is good, no?" remarks the enormously private actress. "I like working once in a while in Hollywood because it's like a holiday, but I am happy in France doing what I do. I am happy with my life. I have enough money. I like to be myself. I like to dance when I am drunk and have a good time. I don't go out much. I stay with my friends. This is what I like."

Before I leave, the lovely Ms Tautou has a request of her own. " I take a photograph with everyone who interviews me, so can I have a photo with you?" she asks, giggling. "Is that just in case we write something awful about you and you can find us again? " I quip. " How can you write anything awful about me?" she frowns comically. "I am so nice."

'Coco Before Chanel' is released on 31 July