REVIEW: Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky Caught in More Than a Bad Romance
Igor Stravinsky wrote that he left the Paris theater where the 1913 premiere of his revolutionary work, "The Rite of Spring," was inciting a bourgeoisie riot before it had finished its Prelude; he saw where things were headed. Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, a heady, austere, wholly unmoving account of their rumored affair, adopts the "Rite"'s debut as its own prelude, and its bravura execution offers intimations -- promising and less so -- of what's to come.
Like the similarly parsed Coco Before Chanel, the film is more memoir than autobiography (as perhaps it must be; I don't see anyone stepping up to take on Ms. Chanel's controversial WWII years any time soon), privileging a favored moment over building a comprehensive character. The 15-plus minute opening's dazzling display of pure cinema storytelling, soaring expressionist style and controlled but vital editing vault the evening of that "Rite" debut into laureled myth; when an affair gets a similar -- if languorously extended -- treatment, the results are slippery and cold, a string of highly polished pearls sliding to the floor.
Co-writer and director Jan Kounen (working from a novel by Chris Greenhalgh) has said that his intention was to turn Chanel and Stravinsky into icons, a redundancy that sadly escaped his notice. To play Chanel in the years directly after Audrey Tautou's version left off, Kounen found another chic, breastless brunette who had already been anointed by the brand in a Chanel campaign. As the 30-something designer, Anna Mouglalis is first seen radiating saturnine intrigue in the audience of Stravinsky's modernist ballet-bomb; seven years later she is a fashion impresario with a bigger house and better wardrobe that only highlight her unchanged expression. Introduced to Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen), who is exiled and struggling after the Russian revolution, at a fabulous postwar party, she pins her shoulders back and lowers her already throaty voice to groin level. Poorly used throughout, in these early encounters Mikkelsen's Stravinsky is almost completely passive. Their relationship "blooms" over scenes in which Chanel swans into view and issues a series of demands that go roughly like this: Call me; live with me; play for me; ravish me right here on my Carrara marble floor.
Installed with his wife, Catherine (Elena Morozova), and children in Chanel's country estate, Stravinsky has time to work -- though it is not clear on what -- pausing occasionally to make meaningful eye contact with and snoop through the bedroom of the mistress of the house. Kounen's camera work contrasts fluid, explorative movement with showy, cubist angles, a technique that orients us to a space or aligns us with a character as often as it does the exact opposite. It does consistently function, however, to animate the largely physically constrained, house-bound material. An extension of her slender self, Chanel's home is a decadently appointed art deco dream, with visual pleasure and charming detail available in every corner. Characters move between its rooms as if through some sort of extremely tasteful, black and white hallucination. In a scene of painful recognition, Catherine (whose waxy complexion and mysterious lack of eyebrows impute her fading vitality) emerges from her room, drawn by the impromptu duet being played in her husband's studio. Finding Chanel and Stravinsky batting away at the keys, she drops from the doorframe unnoticed, and Kounen lets her literally drift out of focus as the new coupling's music fills the frame.
Form-fitting details like that are enough to keep the viewer's aesthetic interest pricked, even as the ostensibly torrid affair at the film's center plays out as a series of limply held (if urgently photographed) poses. As a portrait of artists in love (or just in each other's pants), the film is not encouraging, although perhaps chillingly accurate: Magnetized by their mutual status and ambition, these two seem to be drawn to each other out of selfish, narcissistic validation more than anything; Kounen's determination to fetishize his subjects further limits our emotional connection. Mouglalis lets nothing but mildly inflected hauteur pass over her strong, smoldering features, whether she's pinning a model's skirt or reaching for her lover's fly.
A stern, almost joyless woman, she's just not built for pleasure; an atypical whirl around the dance floor has her quickly spinning completely out of control. Independence and ruthless, almost tragically strict self-preservation may have gone hand in hand for women like Chanel in 1920, but as rendered here those qualities read as complete opacity. Despite an admirable mastery of both Russian and French, Mikkelsen has no shot at making a proud (Russian!) musical genius a believably lovesick puppy. After the departure of his wife -- the only recognizable human in the story -- his descent into alcohol- and heartbreak-fueled creativity is pure, mythologizing pap.
The only convincing, remotely satisfying moment between the couple finds their egos unleashed and talking turkey: "I'm more powerful and more successful than you," Chanel shrugs. "You're not an artist; you're a shopkeeper," Stravinsky hisses. That sounded about right. The rest -- subject to the director's own ego and not the parameters of human emotion -- amounts to little more than set dressing.