Following an advance screening of Sony's new movie Coco Before Chanel, I sat down with male co-star Alessandro Nivola and later with director Anne Fontaine for two private and exclusive Bilerico interviews.
Coco Before Chanel is the story of Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, who begins her life as a poor but headstrong girl who, leveraging the men in her extraordinary journey and borrowing their wardrobe, becomes a legendary couturier embodying the modern woman and becoming a symbol of success, sexual freedom and style.
When I sat down with Alessandro Nivola, I knew I would be distracted by the good looks of this accomplished actor who recently won the Provincetown International Film Festival's 2009 Excellence in Acting Award. I am proud to report that my retention of focus resulted in a fine conversation about the choices he made in his portrayal of Boy Capel, Coco Chanel's lover. There is a party scene in which he felt his character should have been in drag. In the execution of his hunch, he presented himself on the set costumed accordingly for the director's inspection. I knew that in my subsequent time with Anne Fontaine, I'd get the rest of that story.
Mr. Nivola, who proposed to his wife in Provincetown, had this to say about gay rights: "No question to me that gay people should have the same opportunity to marry." He also rightly observed that some wrongly assume that buttoned-down period dramas are about moralizing and conservative old-fashioned characters, when, in reality, our contemporary American middle classes are actually much more puritanical. When you see Coco Before Chanel, notice how the relationship between Boy and Gabrielle is enflamed when marriage becomes a stumbling block rather than the icing on a romantic cake. Hmmm.
Anne Fontaine, the film's director, answered my questions about which scenes were difficult to film and which ones gave her the most satisfaction. There is a spectacular scene by the ocean at a seaside resort in which Coco is in her characteristic dark and mannish garb and surrounded by women festooned in frothy white corseted confections and supporting gigantic hats piled with all sorts of giddy nonsense. This scene required more than twenty-five takes. I gushed over another scene in which Coco is reclining at the base of a mossy tree surrounded by rust colored ferns. I compared Ms. Fontaine's staging to Visconti or Ken Russell. She considered my comparison and semed to tuck it away in a drawer labeled unclearly-good-or-bad. However, we totally agreed that Ingrid Bergman's facial expression as she sits on the piano stool next to her daughter in Autumn Sonata was brilliant, and when I said that Audrey Tautou's facial expression at the end of Coco Before Chanel as she sits on the mirrored staircase and observes the models sailing forth in her creations was equally brilliant, Anne Fontaine smiled and said "Thank you." And for the record, she had nixed Alessandro Nivola's idea about appearing in drag for the party scene, telling me that the film already contained so much sexual ambiguity and fluidity, that addition seemed unnecessary.
I highly recommend this movie. It is sexy, stylish and intelligent, and it is beautifully shot in the Paris region and in Normandy. (Think Merchant Ivory without the stiff upper lip and more emphasis on the characters rather than the Wedgewood.) I'm already hoping for a sequel.
Here's a trailer. Coco Before Chanel opens September 25th in NY and LA, and shortly thereafter in your town..