Q&A: Jan Kounen


CANNES -- Just after the Gallic release of Anne Fontaine's Coco Chanel biopic, Dutch-born French filmmaker Jan Kounen will present his version of the relationship between the fashion icon and Russian composer Igor Stravinsky on closing night. Kounen made a series of music videos, commercials and short films before directing his first controversial feature film, "Dobermann," in 1995. He continued to wow audiences with his signature special-effects-ridden stories such as "Blueberry" or last year's "99 Francs," a comedy based in the brutal advertising world. Kounen was last on the Croisette with his Out of Competition title "Darshan: The Embrace" in 2005. Kounen talks to The Hollywood Reporter France correspondent Rebecca Leffler about closing this year's fest, heading from the Chanel showroom to the Amazon, and why 1920s music is still tres fashionable.

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The Hollywood Reporter: What drew you to this particular story?

Jan Kounen: William Friedkin dropped out of the project and producer Claudie Ossard called me up. I was very curious. I accepted the job rather quickly after reading the script. What really made me want to make the film was, above all, the subject matter. It's a love story between two artists, two historical figures who are each icons in their respective fields. Also, the 1920s were the greatest years. The challenge was to create Igor Stravinsky's 1913 work "The Rite of Spring," which was such a wonderful scene to re-create. The story is shocking, original and beautiful, so I was able to make what I think is the polar opposite of "99 Francs." The story was meant to be told.

THR: How is your film a departure from what Friedkin started?

Kounen: My immediate reaction after reading the script concerned the language. The film was written in English. I said, "I can't tell the story of a French Coco Chanel if she's speaking English in the film." I wanted the French to speak French with each other and the Russians to speak Russian.

THR: This isn't the only film made about Coco Chanel at the moment. Are you sick of all the comparisons to Anne Fontaine's "Coco before Chanel"?

Kounen: No, I'm not sick of them -- yet! I haven't yet gotten the chance to see Anne Fontaine's movie. But from what I hear, her film stops where ours begins. Plus, my film isn't just centered on Chanel. It's about a chance encounter one night in 1913 that sparks a love affair between the characters over an eight-week period. The films are very different.

THR: Why the current fascination with Coco Chanel?

Kounen: I really don't know. Perhaps it's this new passion for biopics. Or perhaps it's simply because Coco Chanel is a very important figure. The modernity of the two characters -- Chanel and Stravinsky -- is very strong as well; their music and clothing remain contemporary.

THR: How would you describe the film?

Kounen: You might call it a psychological drama. Above all, it's a love story. It's a film that stays within the intimacy of two characters. It's not a movie that describes the life's work of Chanel or Stravinsky, but instead the story of two people who find themselves in a complex situation.

THR: How closely is the film based on Chris Greenhalgh's book? Did you want to remain loyal to the book or add the Kounen touch?

Kounen: First, I started with the screenplay that Chris Greenhalgh originally wrote. I worked with him on the adaptation -- I added some of my own ideas and took some ideas from his book as well. Then, I worked on the French adaptation.

THR: How closely did you work with Chanel?

Kounen: We worked very closely with Chanel. We even filmed at their headquarters. It worked out very well. Everyone was very easy to work with. They all appreciated the film a lot. It was a very open, very free work environment. They let us borrow Chanel's own possessions. Karl Lagerfeld created a dress specifically for the film that he then presented during his Paris-Moscow fashion show. Chanel gave us costumes, told us stories -- it was all very fluid.

THR: Did making this film spark your interest in the world of fashion?

Kounen: After the shoot, I went to a fashion show for the first time -- to the Chanel show. It was very impressive. It's not a world I knew well, similar to the music of Stravinsky. I explored both territories, both fashion and classical composers of the 1920s. I was really intrigued by the idea that these creative characters transformed events in their lives into art and how one nourished the other. It's this movement that was attractive to me as a filmmaker. I also fell in love with "The Rite of Spring." It was a major discovery for me. We all know Coco Chanel well, but we don't know Igor Stravinsky as well, so this film will allow people to get to know him better.

THR: You're known for your innovative use of special effects -- are there any in this film?

Kounen: You'll see some effects in the opening credits but other than that, I really tried to avoid using modern effects. It's a period film, so I tried to employ a more traditional savoir-faire. I didn't think a period piece should be filmed in digital. I used digital only to take care of any problems -- a stray microphone in the shot or issues like that, but I took out digital touchups as much as possible.

THR: You've filmed a number of commercials, is this film a two-hour commercial for the house of Chanel?

Kounen: I don't think I made a two-hour ad for Chanel. There's a scene devoted to the creation of the Chanel No. 5 scent, but that's it. Of course, Chanel is always dressed in her own designs, but other than that, the film really focuses on the intimacy of the characters. There was no commercial deal with Chanel, it's not product placement. Of course, the products are there, but I really tried to find a balance and maintain a certain distance in order for the story to be convincing. If anything, it's an ad for Diaguilev's forgotten Russian Ballet -- an homage to Diaguilev, Stravinsky and Nijinsky's work.

THR: How does it feel to return to close the fest? Are you happy being out of competition or would you have wanted to compete with the big boys?

Kounen: Honestly, there are so many incredible directors in the official selection, that I'm happy to be out of competition. I've already screened one film, "Darshan: The Embrace," out of competition. There's much less stress this way. It's wonderful to close the festival. I also think this is a great closing night film in the sense that it presents a very beautiful scene-within-a-scene. It will be lovely to see "The Rite of Spring" in the big Palais theater. I think it's the most interesting place for the film. On closing night, everyone is more relaxed and can appreciate the film that much more.

THR: What are you most looking forward to in Cannes this year?

Kounen: I'm looking forward to discovering films in the big Palais theater. Also, I found the financing for this movie last year in Cannes, so it's the end of a beautiful story.

THR: Is there anyone you're anxious to meet?
Kounen: I usually prefer to meet filmmakers through their films. My one objective this year is to see Gaspar Noe's movie. I'm also looking forward to seeing as many films as possible, particularly Jane Campion's film, since we recently worked together on "8."

THR: What's next for you?

Kounen: I'm working on an animated film for kids that takes place in the Amazon, and also a documentary with fictional sections about the history of the lineage of the Dalai Lamas. I need some rest. I made "99 Francs" and then "Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky" very quickly. I want to take time to write. I'm writing and illustrating my own comic book right now.

THR: How do you want to be remembered?

Kounen: What remains of a filmmaker is his filmography. It's a voyage. I hope that my films are a voyage into different cultures and different worlds. I try to make movies to explore territories, not simply to go to places already discovered. I don't make films so people will remember them, I want to send spectators on a voyage through the cinema. The savoir-faire of the filmmaker is to travel to the unknown. I try to make films that are different -- I don't want to have a signature stamp my whole life. Personally, I want to see things in the movies I haven't already seen.

THR: Any last words before the closing night screening?
Kounen: I have to go. I have to go finish the film I am presenting in Cannes very soon.