An identikit for the face of Chanel
Despite Anna Mouglalis's statuesque beauty she is a perfect match to portray the fashion icon, says Georgia Dehn
When Anna Mouglalis told Karl Lagerfeld that she had been cast as the lead in Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, Jan Kounen's stylised film about their affair, Lagerfeld was quick to point out that she had little in common with Chanel. "He said physically I was totally different," Mouglalis explains. But in every other way, she was the perfect choice. No other woman is so closely associated with the Chanel brand. In 2002, Lagerfeld, the fashion house's artistic director, made Mouglalis the face of its Allure perfume, and three years later, Allure Sensuelle. She is now brand ambassador and the face of Chanel Fine Jewellery.
When she first started working with Chanel she was asked to "embody the spirit of the house", she tells me when we meet in Paris to discuss her new film. "I had fun telling Jan that I had on many occasions taken naps on the same couch that Coco took naps on in her apartment at Rue Cambon. I'd probably had the same dreams as her."
Mouglalis has been Lagerfeld's muse ever since he photographed her for Interview magazine in 2000 to promote her breakthrough film role as a young pianist in Claude Chabrol's Merci Pour le Chocolat (she had made her screen debut two years earlier in what she describes as "the terrible film" Terminale). It was her statuesque beauty and husky, baritone voice that struck Lagerfeld, and it is impossible not to be affected by those qualities when you meet her. "She's Ava Gardner and Anna Magnani rolled into one," Lagerfeld has observed. "A new type of classic beauty. As for the voice -- it sounds like an affectation, but it isn't."
Throughout her 20s, she was often asked whether she considered herself to be primarily an actress or model. It bothered her at the time -- the reason Lagerfeld employed her as a face for Chanel was because she was an actress, not a model -- but now she is 32, with more than 10 further films to her name, including the Italian mob drama Romanzo Criminale (for which she won the Best New Actress award at the 2006 Cabourg film festival for her portrayal of the prostitute Patrizia), she says she does not get worked up so easily.
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is based on the 2002 book by Chris Greenhalgh, a novelised account of their affair. The film opens in 1913, with Chanel saying goodbye to her then current lover, the English polo player Boy Capel, before
attending the premiere of The Rite of Spring. As Chanel sits watching the ballet unfurl, enraged members of the audience hurl abuse at the performers -- "Outrageous", "What a din" -- and a notorious classical music riot erupts.
Chanel seems impressed with the chaos going on around her. What feels too modern to the majority of the crowd -- Stravinsky's intensely rhythmic score and Vaslav Nijinsky's radical choreography -- enthralls her. "Chanel fell in love with the taste of scandal when she saw The Rite of Spring in 1913, without even knowing Stravinsky," Moug-lalis says. "It wasn't until 1920, when she was mourning Boy's death [in a car accident], that she met Stravinsky in person for the first time."
Chanel is inspired to invite the recently exiled and impoverished Stravinsky, as well as his wife and four children, to stay at Bel Respiro, her villa in the Paris suburb of Garches. There, she pursues Stravinsky and they become engulfed in what is to be a short-lived but intensely passionate affair. Through his music, Mouglalis says, Chanel was able to overcome the terrible suffering she experienced from losing her former lover. "She had always been mesmerised by people from the art world and I guess she felt she needed to possess him simply because she was possessed by his music," Mouglalis says.
For the director, Jan Kounen, Mouglalis embodied Chanel. "Her voice, the way she moves, everything in her was the character," and her ability to act with both vigour and grace made her right for the role. "Anna has this strength and she is hard, a very strong personality, but she also has another point very important for Coco -- beauty and elegance," he says.
For Mouglalis, the part needed no introduction. "Because of my relationship with Karl and the house in general, I knew so much about her character already," she says. "Karl is curious about everything and knows so much about the history of fashion and art -- he was very generous in talking to me about that. He also designed a dress for the movie, the last dress I wear to the second representation of The Rite. But the most he told me about was the humour of Chanel. It is true that with such a sharp, violent mind she must have had a lot of humour."
This is not the first time she has played a French icon. In 2006, she played Simone de Beauvoir in the French television drama Les Amants du Flore, a role she feels marked an end to the stereotyping of her as a femme fatale. "It was the first time I embodied someone who had really existed and that was great," she says. "Simone de Beauvoir is someone who moved things on and changed the world a little bit, like Chanel did, which is inspirational."
Mouglalis makes a brief but memorable appearance as Juliette Greco in Gainsbourg, the biopic about Serge Gainsbourg. Greco helped launch the careers of many French singers by performing their songs and in 1963 she performed Gainsbourg's La Jarvanaise. In the film you see him nervously visit Greco with the request that she might consider it. "It is a very small part," she says. "But it is thanks to that movie that I met Greco. She was very happy I was doing her part and invited me to a concert at the Versailles Opera."
When Mouglalis was a little girl growing up in the western city of Nantes, she never considered a career as an actress. Her mother was at home and her father practised acupuncture. "I had to explain to my teacher at school exactly what he did," she says. "Twenty-five years ago there were very few acupuncturists and people thought of them in the same way they did palm readers." The only ambition she recalls was to be a professional acrobatic diver. She competed a number of times between six and 11, but then became bored with the sport ("I was always smelling of swimming-pools and the training was a bit too military for me," she remembers).
Her father was strict, and as a teenager, with help from her big brother (she also has a younger sister), she took the nails out of floorboards in her ground-floor bedroom so she could escape through the basement and go out at night. "When he asked me what I wanted for Christmas or my birthday, I would always say, 'freedom'," Mouglalis says.
At 15, she told her father she was moving to Paris. Her parents were sure she would abandon her studies, but when she enrolled at high school they supported her decision. By chance, when she was 18, she met a theatre director who asked her to act in a play. She didn't fancy being in the limelight, having done a bit of modelling since arriving in Paris -- "which I hated" -- but she became his assistant and was soon rehearsing the actors because of the director's continual absence.
One of the actors suggested she apply to the Conservatoire National Superieur d'Art Dramatique (the French equivalent of Rada). She did so, and got such a kick out of the audition that she decided acting was for her. "I got up in front of the jury, and fear transformed to enthusiasm. It was amazing, like a drug -- I loved that state," she recalls. She graduated from the Conservatoire in 2001, having taken time out of her studies to film Terminale and Merci Pour le Chocolat.
Mouglalis has a three-year-old daughter, Saul, whose father is the French director Samuel Benchetrit. She met Benchetrit when he cast her in the lead role of his film I Always Wanted to Be a Gangster in 2006 and during the shoot she became pregnant. They recently finished filming his latest film, Chez Gino, together. "It is a bit crazy -- working together, sleeping together and sharing the same trailer on set -- but it is great when we are doing the same thing and we have the same tastes mostly," Mouglalis says. Saul was often on the set of Chez Gino and it seems the toddler shares her mother's feisty nature. "We wanted to put her in the movie, but she refused and then told us she didn't want to come on set any more because our profession was too boring."
Mouglalis intends to move into direction and has a feature film, Le Gars, which she has written, in development. Last year, she was asked to write and direct a short porn film to be shown as part of the French television series X Femmes, a set of short adult movies created by women. She agreed to it on the condition she could have complete editorial control.
"I thought it would be more interesting, coming from the point of view of feminine desire, not to show any sex," Mouglalis says of the film she called Les Filles.
Though the producer told her the film could not be classed as porn, she is delighted with Les Filles, in which she cast Benchetrit as the main character. She even won a prize with it at Venice. "It is a beautiful love story," Mouglalis says. "You can always find your own point of freedom in everything. Acting is the same. It is all about transgression.
"It was interesting to portray Chanel through her love story with Stravinsky," she continues, "because the process is inverted. I mean, she has the money, the independence, the power, all the attributes we would usually have given to men at that time. That is something that we tried to reflect in the film, even in the sex scenes. She is making all those dresses that are easy to wear, and he is constricted in his suit. She is directing."
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is now showing