Because couturière Coco Chanel and composer Igor Stravinsky are sacred monsters of modernist culture, a cinematic encounter between the two promises an upscale version of King Kong vs. Godzilla. Fascinated by the Russian émigré’s boldly innovative music, Chanel invited Stravinsky to work and live at her elegant villa on the outskirts of Paris. Biographers dispute whether anything sexual developed between the two in a household that included Stravinsky’s wife, Katya (Morozova), and their four children. But, in his 2002 novel Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, from which he adapted the screenplay for director Jan Kounen’s handsome new film, English author Chris Geenhalgh imagines a passionate affair that fed the creativity of both Chanel and Stravinsky, until it did not.
The film begins in Paris in 1913, with a dramatic rendition of the most famous event in the arts of the 20th century. The Rite of Spring receives its world premiere before an eager, well-heeled audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. But Stravinsky’s music is harsh and discordant, and the choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky for the Ballet Russes enacts the primitive rhythms of a pagan fertility ritual. The production is nothing like Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty, and, amid hoots of derision and cries of “bravo!,” fights erupt between detractors and supporters of the daring new work. The riotous evening is a succès de scandale that establishes Stravinsky as a master of the avant-garde.
Kounen orchestrates the scene with such panache that the rest of the film seems played with broken strings. We jump to 1920, to explore the artistic and sexual tensions within Chanel’s villa. The celebrated fashion designer is both generous and imperious, a tyrant to the employees who help realize and market her inventive fashion designs. Stravinsky, who eats raw eggs but swallows no guff, is a frosty presence committed to his music to the exclusion of almost everything else. Though he appreciates her hospitality and craves her body, Stravinsky does not consider Chanel his peer. “You’re not an artist, Coco,” he tells her in an indiscreet moment. “You’re a shopkeeper.” But Kounen crosscuts between Stravinsky experimenting at the piano and Chanel testing combinations to attain the perfect perfume (faced with several choices, she of course picks No. 5), affirming a parallel between the two proud, independent spirits.
When erotic sparks ignite between Chanel and her brilliant guest, Katya, who suffers from consumption as well as the realization that her childhood sweetheart has fallen for a siren, is distraught. “It’s as if I’m already dead,” she complains. What keeps the film from dying is the perennial energy of Stravinsky’s music and the production’s dazzling set and costume designs. Anna Mouglalis’s Chanel and Mads Mikkelsen’s Stravinsky couple and clash in icy silences. Much of the time they brood. How does one compose? “You try to lose yourself in the music,” explains Stravinsky, who retreats to a place no camera can reach. Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is less a study of character than a gaudy arrangement of cultural icons. •
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky
Dir. Jan Kounen; writ. Chris Greenhalgh, based on his own novel; feat. Anna Mouglalis, Mads Mikkelsen, Yelena Morozova (R)