Coco Avant Chanel - Coco, before Chanel

Article by Justine Picardie
From Londons Sunday Times
May 3, 2009

A woman in Chanel's image
She charmed us all as the ingenue in Amelie, but Audrey Tatou's new role, playing the fashion legend Coco Chanel, is far more complex and mysterious

There’s something unsettling about seeing Audrey Tautou, because she looks uncannily like the designer Coco Chanel. Not that I ever met Mademoiselle (as she was known to her staff throughout her career), for she died in 1971, at the age of 87. But here I am, on a spring afternoon in Paris, in the glittering suite of a palace hotel, trying not to stare at Tautou, having just watched her in two different incarnations of Chanel: the heroine of Anne Fontaine’s film Coco avant Chanel, and the new face of Chanel No 5, a perfume that has come to represent the woman who launched it, in 1922, as well as the millions of women around the world who feel it to be their own.
“What I recognise of Chanel in myself is a strong spirit, intelligence and pride,” says Tautou — which is doubtless true, but their physical resemblance is also instantly evident. I’ve spent months in historical archives, searching out photographs to illustrate the Chanel biography I am writing, and both women have a similarly powerful presence, despite their slightness of stature (Tautou is 5ft 3in, and as slender as Chanel), with high cheekbones and porcelain pale skin, bobbed hair and dark eyes. They are the epitome of chic Parisians, but come from the same rural region of France — Auvergne, several hundred miles south of the capital city. “It’s the centre of France, the heart of the country, far from the sea, and very isolated, with volcanic mountains,” says Tautou. “There’s something about the landscape that makes the Auvergnat strong-minded.” She had a more stable childhood than Chanel: Coco (born Gabrielle) was the daughter of an itinerant pedlar, who abandoned her and her two sisters in an orphanage after their mother died; Tautou, the eldest of four children, was brought up by both parents (her father is a dental surgeon, her mother a teacher). But as Tautou speaks, I am reminded of Colette’s description of Chanel in 1932 as a “little black bull”, her “despotic” eyebrows, arched above “eyes the colour of granite”. You can see the same determination in Tautou’s face, when she flashes a look that says, “Don’t mess with me.”
No wonder, then, that the house of Chanel should have chosen her for its latest No 5 commercial, to be launched on Tuesday — the fifth day of the fifth month, in accordance with Mademoiselle Chanel’s superstitious attachment to her lucky number. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who worked with Tautou on Amélie, it was filmed on the Orient Express, from Paris to Istanbul, and features a romance between two travellers: a handsome young man (played by the American model Travis Davenport) falls for gorgeous Audrey, and traces her by her scent.
Tautou’s role is that of an elusive mystery woman, and she plays a similar game in interviews, as Chanel used to do. Neither discussed their love life. Tautou has never confirmed the speculation that she is involved with Lance Mazmanian, a writer. And she proves herself equally adept at side-stepping questions about the previous faces of No 5, who include Marilyn Monroe, Catherine Deneuve and, most recently, Nicole Kidman. “For me, Chanel No 5 is a legend in itself,” she says. “You can wear it, offer it as a gift and share it, but it transcends all the women who have embodied the fragrance before me.” Instead, Tautou concentrates on her link with Chanel. “I don’t compare myself with these great actresses, I don’t see myself as part of their lineage. I feel closer to the fragrance itself, its history and even Coco Chanel.”
The history of No 5 is inextricably woven into the narrative of Chanel’s life, the details of which she told and retold in a number of different and intriguing ways. The truth — if there can be such a thing in a designer who understood the power of the looking glass, of doubling and multiplying reflections in a succession of artfully placed mirrors — is being reshaped again, in Coco avant Chanel. But the outline of the story goes something like this.
In the early 1920s, Chanel met Ernest Beaux, an expert perfumer who had set up a laboratory in Grasse, in the south of France. She asked him to create “a perfume such as never before been made” — unlike any of the heavy, floral formulas fashionable at the time — and Beaux came up with 10 different samples. Chanel chose the fifth bottle, pronouncing it to be the perfect blend, “a woman’s perfume, with a woman’s scent”, and naming it “Number Five — my lucky number. It will be Chanel No 5”.
Tautou doesn’t attach quite the same importance as Chanel did to numbers. (Chanel based many of her designs on fives, along with other signifiers in her much-duplicated iconography — No 19, for example, denoted her birthday on August 19.) But Tautou does tell the following anecdote: “I can be a bit of a fetishist. The day it was announced that I was the new face of Chanel No 5, on May 5 — the fifth of the fifth — I was in New York. The number of my hotel room was 555. Nobody had asked for that number in particular — I just went into the room that had been allocated to me. And I said to myself that it was very strange.”
Despite the overlapping coincidences and similarities, Tautou doesn’t agree with Chanel’s maxim of “A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future”, but she is clearly aware of the seductive power of fragrance, and its potential to evoke memory, as well as desire. “You have this store of unforgettable memories that can suddenly appear from nowhere, like a gust of wind hitting your face.” Thus No 5 reminds her of herself as a small child, in her aunt’s house. “She had placed her bottle on a shelf, and at the time it seemed enormous to me. Even then, it symbolised luxury, refinement and mystery. I used to tell myself that every spray of the fragrance was the height of luxury.” Touching her aunt’s bottle was “strictly forbidden”, and even now, she says, she wears her perfume “like a secret”.
That might seem implausible given her high-profile association with a vast global brand, but in this, as in other matters, Audrey Tautou speaks in a manner suggestive of Coco Chanel. For although Chanel became an instantly recognisable label in her own lifetime, she also remained an intensely private women, intent on keeping a great many secrets to herself.

'Coco' is screening for a limited time in July at the Penthouse Theatre, Brooklyn and The Embassy Theatre, Kent Tce as part of Wellingtons International Film Festival. If you miss seeing it there, it is due for general release sometime in August - so the nice people at Petones Lighthouse Cinemas tell me. Goodness will have double passes to give away once it arrives. I will of course let you know when the time comes.