Rite of fling
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