Audrey Tautou and director Anne Fontaine discuss Coco Before Chanel
By Alex Stanger
Entertainment reporter, BBC News
It's the classic rags to riches story.
Abandoned by her parents and brought up in an orphanage, Gabrielle Coco Chanel went on to build, arguably, the world's most famous fashion house.
So it is a bit of a surprise that only one film, 1982's Coco Solitaire, has been made about Chanel's life.
Until now. This year, not one, but three movies are ready to be added to that collection.
The made-for US TV film, Coco Chanel, starring Shirley MacLaine, the as-yet-unreleased Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky movie, which closed this year's Cannes Film Festival, and the French film Coco Before Chanel (Coco Avant Chanel) which opens in the UK this week.
As the title would suggest, the latter movie focuses on Chanel's life before she became a famous designer.
"It was the obvious time, when she was forming her personality," says Belgian director and writer Anne Fontaine.
Coco Chanel was famously coy about her past
"She was poor, she didn't have a home. It is incredible that someone so young and from her social class, with no advantages, became this strong personality, the face of modern women."
And for Fontaine, the story has a personal element..
"Before I made the film I already knew the character for 20 years, because I met, when I was very young, the last assistant of Coco Chanel - the woman who took care of her in her last 10 years.
"She spoke so much about her to me and I became very impressed by this personality. In the early years of her career women were very conformist, and she was very liberating."
Despite that, when interviewed Chanel was famously coy about her past.
For instance, she often claimed she was born in Auvergne in 1893, when she was actually born in a Loire Valley workhouse in 1883.
"I had no idea about her early life," says actress Audrey Tautou, who plays the fashion designer.
"I didn't know she was a singer in a cabaret, that she was an orphan and had a very poor childhood. So I was very impressed by the fact that she became this self-made woman."
She was a mix of fragility and strength, determination and doubt. It was an honour to play someone who had this psychological chaos
Audrey Tautou on playing Coco Chanel
But according to Tautou - best-known for her role in 2001 French film Amelie - it was Chanel's character, rather than her life story, which piqued her interest in the role.
"She was very complex and very rich. She had so many contrasts. She was a fragile person who was trying hard to hide it.
"So she was a mix of fragility and strength, determination and doubt. It was an honour to play someone who had this psychological chaos."
Those characteristics were shared by another French heroine - singer Edith Piaf - says director Fontaine.
She thinks the success the Piaf bio-pic La Vie En Rose in 2007, helped make Coco Before Chanel possible.
"The Anglo-Saxon has always made movies about famous characters. La Vie En Rose has, maybe, opened a new way of making movies in France," she says.
'Clever and smart'
"Edith Piaf and Coco Chanel are two French icons. Everywhere you go there is this name, Coco Chanel. It is the same with Edith Piaf and her music.
"But there are also similarities in the beginning because they both came from a poor social class."
Coco Before Chanel and Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky are both backed by the famous fashion brand.
Chanel has been compared with another French heroine, Edith Piaf
Tautou and Anna Mouglalis (who plays the designer in Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky) are both starring in advertising campaigns for the fashion house.
Chief designer Karl Lagerfeld, who has also lent each production his designs, gave Audrey some advice before the cameras rolled: "He just told me she was 'maline' - clever and smart."
Fortunately Tautou believes there's enough room at the cinema for other interpretations of the character.
"I don't think she is my property. She is a famous woman, so she doesn't belong to just me."
But director Fontaine claims Tautou's interpretation is the ultimate Chanel.
"I wrote the script and was sure I had the best actress for the part, because you can't imitate it," she says.
"You have to have the body for it and the way you look. I love Audrey Tautou because she brings out all the characteristics that Chanel had."
She adds: "What the most important thing to me is to bring the earlier years to life. The fact that there was a TV film made about her with Shirley MacLaine... the concept of that I find slightly strange."
However only the MacLaine movie has, so far, told the whole Chanel tale.
And with a career that spanned six decades, designs which are deemed classics and a string of intriguing romances, Chanel's life is full of possibilities for film-makers.
And the cinematic onslaught is showing no signs of slowing down.
French screenwriter Daniele Thompson and actress Demi Moore are rumoured to be planning two more movies about Chanel's famous life.
As for Tautou, following a string of French films she has not ruled out a return to Hollywood, her last English-speaking role being in 2006's The Da Vinci Code.
"When I work on the sets in Hollywood or France, they are the same. Just the people change," she says.
"It is always the human story. I had a great time on The Da Vinci Code, and I like all these experiences as long as they are different."
There is still no word on Tautou's next role but after playing Coco Chanel, a "different" movie experience is just about guaranteed.
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