- The Washington Times - Friday, October 9, 2009

It’s a bold move to make a film about legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel without showing any of her exquisite creations. A risky one, too, as many might flock to such a biopic hoping to be dazzled by the clothes.

But the director of “Coco avant Chanel” (“Coco Before Chanel”) says restricting herself to the designer’s beginnings in the early 20th century actually gave her more freedom than making “Coco After Chanel” would have done.

Anne Fontaine, speaking during a recent visit to the District, says she felt creatively liberated by putting just the woman, not the brand, on film.

“After 10 minutes of clothes in a movie,” she says, “it doesn’t bring emotion at all. Clothes are something not alive.”

In “Coco,” Audrey Tautou intensely brings to life the woman behind the famous name. What interested Miss Fontaine about Chanel was what set this artist apart from other artists — a long struggle to realize she was one.

Usually, we imagine that famous writers or painters, say, spent their youth dreaming of becoming famous writers or painters — and it’s often the case — but, “Not Chanel,” the director notes. “She dreams to be a singer, she dreams to be an actress. She was not a very good singer. She had this talent to sew but didn’t care about that. She thought it was for ordinary women. It’s interesting to see how the vocation comes out.”

Chanel’s radical clothes came out of her radical life, a fact Miss Fontaine focused on in her film.

“It came from her life, her style, her personality, the way that she wants to be free to run, to go on horses, to not be dependent. But she was a courtesan, and to be a courtesan is to be dependent, of course,” she says. “Both things were completely mixed. It was a new way to be. For that reason, she’s the first feminist — before feminism, without ideology, of course.”

Miss Fontaine, an elegant woman who started her career as an actress, says it’s unlikely she would have made the film without Miss Tautou. “You have to have a very different body to do the part. Not just the face, the eyes, the intensity of the eyes, but also the body. Because she was like an androgyne woman. Today it’s very fashionable, but then she was like an anorexic,” she says. “When I saw Audrey, it was incredible, the similarity between her and the young character. That made me believe I could do this movie.”

Miss Tautou is best known to American audiences as the ingenuous title character of “Amelie.” “She’s not only the sweet French girl, she’s more complicated than that,” Miss Fontaine says. She recalls the “cold” gaze the actress fixed on her in their first meeting: “It was Chanel’s clinical eyes.”

The actress was sizing up the director — other filmmakers had asked her to play Chanel. “She always refused; she didn’t like the way they wanted to do the thing,” Miss Fontaine says, explaining that the actress didn’t want heavy makeup to transform her into an older Chanel. Miss Tautou came from the same part of provincial, central France as the designer, though. “She had a feeling she was predestined to do the part; she had always heard about Chanel growing up.”

There have been many famous French designers — Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent — but none quite like Chanel.

“I think today, everywhere in the world, she’s more than a brand. Even if the people don’t know about her life, they feel that she was the first that invented something,” Miss Fontaine concludes. “You can say there were many stylists after. But someone who invents a new way to be for a woman — that is she.”

Kelly Jane Torrance

Seriously surprised

Michael Stuhlbarg, the Juilliard-trained, Tony-nominated but relatively unknown lead of “A Serious Man,” the new movie by the Coen brothers, was surprised at just how serious a tone the movie he was making ended up taking.

“The whole piece was just so beautifully put together, I just enjoyed it for what it was,” he says of the movie’s script. “I just found myself laughing a lot. The jokes and the situations and the stuff like that. It made me laugh.

“I was surprised when I saw the finished product because I thought we were making a movie that was not as dramatic as this final piece is.”

Sitting in an interview suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown, Mr. Stuhlbarg is soft-spoken yet intense, eyes narrowing while contemplating a question and lighting up when he’s thinking of the movie’s funnier moments. His interactions with Fred Melamed — whose character, Sy Abelman, is a family friend working to steal his wife away — were particularly memorable.

“I sort of thought of Sy Abelman as being much more of a grotesque when I imagined it on the page,” he says. But Mr. Melamed’s “take on it was fantastic, and I didn’t expect it, and I think that’s what delighted me so much about what we got to do together. It surprised me; it made me laugh.”

Mr. Stuhlbarg worked hard during his rehearsals to ensure that he wasn’t painting himself into a corner of his own making; he wanted to make sure that his interactions with the rest of the cast wouldn’t come across as forced or unnatural.

“You imagine, you try to rehearse this whole thing by yourself, and you start to think of these characters in one particular way, and then you get in front of the real person, and it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s nothing like what I imagined, they’re so much better than what I thought, and they’ve brought so much more wit, and so much more light and enthusiasm,’ ” he says of his cast mates.

Sonny Bunch

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