Anne Fontaine

The French director speaks to Hint about the making of Coco Before Chanel (opening Sept. 25), starring Audrey Tautou as the larger-than-life, sometimes contradictory, but always self-made icon in her impressionable early years.

Lee Carter: It seems to me, to make a film about Chanel’s life, you must have had a very unique interest in her…
Anne Fontaine: Yes, when I was young I was fortunate enough to meet Lilou Marquand, Chanel’s last assistant and author of the book Chanel Told Me. She became a friend of mine and everyday I would hear something new about this mythical personality. But I never thought I would end up making a film about her.

How did the idea for the film come about?
I was approached by the producers three years ago. I accepted the task because I felt I knew her so well. I knew how courageous and brave she was without any education, artistic or intellectual. She discovered her own style and offered a new way to be a woman. She didn’t like to sew, because she was taught it as an orphan in a convent, and never thought she would become famous for it.

Why did you choose to cover only the early years?
You can’t make a great movie shoving 87 years into two hours. I didn’t want to make a biopic. I wanted to keep some things mysterious, but reveal other things. Most people don’t know she was a courtesan, a singer and a dancer.

Any surprises during your research?
Everything was very surprising because she lied a lot. She felt the need to. She had incredible energy, but underneath was a vulnerability. Because of this, many people who worked with her said she was horrible at the end of her life, fighting against tragedy, fragility and loneliness until the very end. She was very complex and can’t be simplified with a biopic.

Has Karl Lagerfeld seen the film?
I don’t know. I doubt it since he’s not in the movie. He’s had nice things to say about it though.

Will you be making any more fashion films?
I’m not into fashion so much. The emotion of a fashion show disappears in a second. As Chanel herself often said: “Only style remains.” I’m more interested in personalities. Coco was the first modern woman, perhaps its first feminist. For me this is fascinating.