Coco and Igor

“Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky” which was the closing film at this year’s Cannes film festival, featured at IFFI as well.

Based on the novel by Chris Greenhalgh, the film uses artistic license to the full in its attempt to dramatise the supposed loved affair between two of the greatest cultural icons of the last century.

Greenhalgh admits that the premise for the novel hinges around two facts: that Chanel attended the riotous prémière of Stravinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) on May 29, 1913; and that Stravinsky and his family were Chanel’s guests at her country villa outside Paris in 1920. The rest is speculation, based solely on Stravinsky’s ability to juggle the parts of doting family man and high-profile philanderer, and Chanel’s own licentious lifetsyle.

Director Jan Kounen sets himself the tough challenge of opening the film with the aforementioned prémière at the Champs Elysées theatre, meticulously recreated on- and offstage. It is a music lover’s treat, running for a good half hour.

The work was avant-garde for its time, right from the evocative opening melody on the bassoon. The inspiration drew from a series of paintings by Nicholas Roerich, referring to a pagan ritual in which a young girl dances herself to death. Commissioned by impresario Sergei Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes, and choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, the ballet debuted to a scandalised audience “more accustomed to Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty”, and a full-on fracas ensued. The conductor, Pierre Monteux later confessed that he had no idea how the ballet turned out onstage as he had his head buried in the rhythmically and harmonically complex score! It took all his skill to keep the orchestra playing together, to the end, undaunted by the goings-on in the audience.

A superb attempt is made to capture this sense of outrage, and the pandemonium in the audience and backstage. Coco watches, both impressed and amused.

From here on, however, the film meanders at best.

It skips now through documentary footage of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, to 1920, when Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) is still in grief over the recent tragic death of her lover Arthur “Boy” Capel in a car accident. A brief encounter again with Igor Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen), now an exile from Russia, leads to an invitation to the Stravinskys to move out of their hotel in Paris to her country villa on its outskirts.
An illicit affair now begins between the two protagonists, with a telling effect on their creative output. 1920 was the year Chanel no. 5 was launched. It also marks the beginning of Stravinsky’s new liberated style of composition, his Neo-Classicist period (Pulcinella and the Octet for wind instruments being eminent examples). Coincidence?

But somehow the passion on screen just doesn’t ignite. The initial seduction scene appears contrived, and the bedroom episodes perfunctory.

The film does deserve credit for juxtaposing these two giants from couture and music. Parallels are drawn between their methods. While Stravinsky confesses that he composes from the piano, and then writes it down, Chanel works directly onto fabric, rather than from sketches. Both prefer a hands-on approach to the tools of their craft. A pivotal moment in the film is the heated exchange between Coco and Igor. Whereupon she hurls at him “I’m just as smart as you. And as much of an artist”, he retorts “You’re not an artist, Coco. You’re a shopkeeper”. It marks the end of the affair, but not the relationship.

Anna Mouglalis’ clotheshanger frame is a couturière’s dream, and she slips into the part of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel with nonchalant ease. However, we only get mere fleeting glimpses of the style icon’s genius.

Mads Mikkelsen incidentally had played the Bond villain to chilling effect in Casino Royale. However his portrayal of the iconoclast modernist composer comes across as rather wooden and uninspired, although his piano playing does look convincing.

Elena Morozova as the tubercular cuckolded wife Catarina Stravinsky silently steals the audience’s heart.

The film is worth a watch just for the exquisite costumes by Chanel, her Art Deco workshop and her lovely chic villa, to say nothing of the antiques by Lalique.

The original score by Gabriel Yared stands respectably well alongside Stravinsky’s own music.

The film (which was also released in English) is shot entirely in French and Russian.

By a strange coincidence, another film on Chanel was also released this year, “Coco before Chanel”, with Audrey (da Vinci code) Tautou in the eponymous role.

© Luis Dias. All rights reserved