The foremost fashion designer of the last hundred years is Coco Chanel and her life story is almost as fascinating as her timeless designs. As its title indicates, this most recent film is a look at Chanel from her childhood until the moment when, with the help of some money from her lovers, opened her first business, designing hats. In this film, as Coco cuts up her lovers’ clothes to make creations for itself that were simple, elegant, wearable, and instantly classic. Amid all the flounces, corsets, and enormous hats, it was like watching the 20th century walk into the room. At the end of the film, when we get a glimpse of one of her fashion shows, every single item is as chic today as it was when she designed it.
Anne Fontaine, who co-wrote and directed, spoke to me about the endless interest in Chanel and how she selected an American actor to play a British character who spoke French.
NM: Why focus on Chanel’s youth and relationships instead of her work?
AF: She is the 20th century by herself, it is about fashion of course but deeply it is about a new way to be for a woman, very physical. She was not beautiful, she was very thin, very androgynous, she was not at all the criteria of beauty for this period, she was like a little boy. You can’t understand Chanel unless you know that she has a very different body. Because she was so different, because she was poor, it gave her freedom to move differently, physically and through society. She was creating clothes for herself that were less confining not just for the style but so she could do what she wanted to do.
NM: You cast one of my favorite actors, the American Alessandro Nivola, to play a British man who speaks fluent French. How did that happen?
AF: When I was looking for an actor to interpret Boy Capel, as you say he was a British businessman, who was the most important love of Chanel’s life. She always said he was the first and the most deep relationship she had, I tried to look in England, if there was a young man who could play the part in France. Many actors when they lose their language — it can be awful. If he does not think through the language and only thinks through the sounds he can lose all the qualities he had because it is very difficult to play a part in another language. In England, I didn’t find an actor who has the charm, the qualities that the part requires and they didn’t speak French at all. I was doing some casting in New York and someone mentioned Alessandro Nivola. I knew he had played an English part in a Kenneth Branaugh film, but that was not the reason. I made him a little exercise before the audition: “Can you read one scene of the script in French?” When I spoke with him on the phone I knew he could speak French, not fluently, but he was not afraid. I did a test with him to see how the face moved with the French and it was not only good but also very different from the other man who played the aristocrat. They were so different. The two men she was involved with showed different things and affected her differently.
Alessandro said it was very hard to be directed in French because I was always at his shoulder telling him to be careful with this word and that word. I wanted him to have an accent of course but not too much.