Rite of fling

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Lau­rel Glad­den I For The New Mex­i­can

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravin­sky, drama, rated R, in French and Rus­sian with sub­ti­tles, Re­gal DeVargas, 2.5 chiles Is it just me, or does that ti­tle sound like an en­cy­clo­pe­dia en­try? The two sub­jects of this film — based on the book of the same name by Chris Green­halgh and di­rected by Jan Kounen — were defin­ing fig­ures in 20th-cen­tury cul­ture. Al­though his­tory doc­u­ments that Stravin­sky did live in one of Chanel’s homes for a while and that she was a pa­tron of his mu­sic, that they em­barked on a steamy love af­fair is the stuff of leg­end. While this film, which imag­ines the af­fair, is vis­ually breath­tak­ing, be­neath the al­lur­ing sur­face, it’s as dry and unin­spir­ing as an old text­book.

If you want back story on pi­o­neer­ing fashion de­signer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, you could see last year’s Coco Be­fore Chanel (and you should — it’s much more fun); for more on highly in­flu­en­tial Rus­sian com­poser Igor Stravin­sky, you’ll have to pull out that en­cy­clo­pe­dia. Af­ter a brief glimpse of Coco (Anna Mouglalis) with her lover, Arthur “Boy” Capel, the film ded­i­cates 20 min­utes to the scan­dalous 1913 pre­miere of Stravin­sky’s Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. On that night, the avant-garde dis­so­nance of Stravin­sky’s mu­sic and the in­no­va­tive dance moves Vaslav Ni­jin­sky had set to it caused a riot among the bour­geois au­di­ence mem­bers ac­cus­tomed to ro­man­tic bal­lets. Chanel hap­pened to be seated among them.

Who doesn’t wish they could have been a mem­ber of the au­di­ence dur­ing that sem­i­nal per­for­mance? Kounen’s re-cre­ation of the ground­break­ing evening helps sat­isfy that de­sire — it’s a bril­liant, elec­tric, mov­ing piece of cin­ema. It sets the dra­matic bar high, though, and the rest of the film sim­ply can’t live up to it.

Af­ter the ex­hil­a­rat­ing open­ing, the film breezes through World War I and the Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion in a dis­ap­point­ing news­reel mon­tage. It jumps to 1920, when Stravin­sky (Mads Mikkelsen, Le Chiffre from

and Chanel meet at a party. The ex­pa­tri­ate com­poser is nearly pen­ni­less, and Coco, now suc­cess­ful, is mourn­ing the death of Boy. Af­ter their ini­tial in­tro­duc­tion, Chanel of­fers Stravin­sky her coun­try château so he can work on his mu­sic rent-free and his tu­ber­cu­lar wife (Elena Moro­zova, look­ing like she stepped out of a Jan van Eyck por­trait) can ben­e­fit from some fresh air.

What do you get when you com­bine a hand­some com­poser with an in­valid wife; a glam­orous, griev­ing French­woman; and a grand Art Deco villa whose co­pi­ous beds are cov­ered in el­e­gant satin sheets? A bunch of highly styled, art­fully lit sex scenes al­most com­pletely de­void of real pas­sion or emo­tion. Stravin­sky and Chanel are two pretty cool char­ac­ters, so sadly, when they get to­gether, they don’t gen­er­ate much heat. Oh, they ex­change mean­ing­ful looks all right, but they never say much to each other, so we don’t know why the two self-im­por­tant sour­pusses want to be to­gether. They’re naked in plenty of scenes, too, but they never ex­pose them­selves emo­tion­ally. Just be­cause char­ac­ters are fa­mous doesn’t mean we’ll care about them.

This cer­tainly isn’t a biopic. What we learn about Stravin­sky and Chanel as peo­ple amounts to what it would have been like to be in a room with them. With the ex­cep­tion of a brief look at the mak­ing of Chanel No. 5, we don’t glean much about ei­ther lead’s cre­ative process. In­stead, they come off as a cou­ple of self­ish jerks — it’s hard to iden­tify a hero or hero­ine when your choices are mega­lo­ma­ni­acs. It’s al­most heart­break­ing to watch Coco and Igor make ur­gent love while Kata­rina, Stravin­sky’s wife, is in the next room or up­stairs. When Kata­rina con­fronts Chanel and asks if she feels any guilt, Coco replies with a forth­right “No.”

Don’t get me wrong: the film is still cap­ti­vat­ing, thanks largely to gor­geous cin­e­matog­ra­phy (by di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy David Un­garo), set­tings (Chanel granted ac­cess to Coco’s Paris apart­ment), and cos­tumes (Karl Lager­feld cre­ated two out­fits, and the de­sign house lent the film­mak­ers sev­eral orig­i­nal gar­ments and ac­ces­sories). The ac­tors em­body their char­ac­ters nicely, too — the real Coco never looked so rav­ish­ing — and do well with the limited ma­te­rial they’re given, al­though Mouglalis some­times sounds as if she has smoked one too many Gauloises.

But the lack of en­gage­ment presents a prob­lem as the film lum­bers to­ward its anticlimactic end­ing. With­out much di­a­logue or sub­stance, it be­gins to re­sem­ble a lush, el­e­gant mu­sic video for

and Gabriel Yared’s Stravin­sky-in­spired score. Kounen — whose shoot­ing is gen­er­ally thought­ful and imag­i­na­tive — gets car­ried away with fussy, self-con­scious di­rec­to­rial flour­ishes: char­ac­ters glimps­ing their re­flec­tions, whole or frac­tured, in mir­rors; faces sink­ing into and ris­ing out of bath wa­ter; the cam­era glid­ing up and down pas­sage­ways, etc. The mu­sic, while un­de­ni­ably mag­nif­i­cent, struck me as too pow­er­ful and dra­matic for sen­sual mon­tages of star-crossed lovers — un­less, un­be­known to us, there was a rit­ual sac­ri­fice go­ing on in the next room or some­thing.

Movies some­times seem to jus­tify eroti­cism and adul­tery by sug­gest­ing they can lead to cre­ative break­throughs. But

failed to con­vince me that the head­board-rat­tling plea­sures its char­ac­ters shared had any im­pact on them. We never see, and are left to guess, how their tor­rid af­fair in­spired their cre­ative lives. In a sur­pris­ingly abrupt end­ing jump, Kounen shows Chanel and Stravin­sky many years later, both old and alone. She’s clad in one of her iconic suits and lives by her­self in a heav­ily gilt apart­ment. He awakes in the night in his tiny sin­gle bed and works in quiet soli­tude. In the end, makes an erotic en­counter and its ef­fects look like a pic­ture in a book: lovely but life­less.

Change the Chanel: Mads Mikkelsen and Anna Mouglalis

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