SFIFF Film Review: “Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky”

by Marie Carney on April 28, 2010

Anna Mouglalis and Mads Mikkelsen are quite believable as this iconoclastic pair

“Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky” twists the worlds of fashion, art, music and society together.  It screams about the new-ness inherent in the early 20th century: in music, in fashion, and in people’s relationships.  The film depicts the couple’s passionate affair along with what is billed (by the film) as each of their greatest works:  Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Sping” or “Le Sacre du Printemps” and Coco Chanel’s iconic fragrance Chanel No. 5.  In this day and age where music and fashion are so intertwined the film successfully takes you into the world of 1920’s Paris where this was far from the truth.  Coco Chanel is the unlikely patron here, bringing Igor Stravinsky into her world with money, and with that relationship forged, the pair change each other’s art and direction.

For me, there were three great things about this film, and one really awful one.  Two of the great things weaved in and out throughout the whole movie:  Coco Chanel’s sense of style and Igor Stravinsky’s music.  Visually, it is like watching all the best parts of Coco Chanel herself.  Everything is streamlined, impeccably beautiful, simple and black and white.  It feels like going to Art Deco heaven, if you believe in such a thing (and I do!).  The director, Jan Kounen, was allowed access to Chanel’s archives, and her Paris apartment, and you can see that he took this access seriously in every detail on the screen.  It is like watching Coco Chanel’s soul, or at least, the best of it.

Stravinsky’s music is also everywhere, underscoring the mood at every point.  He spends most of the film composing at the piano, with varying degrees of passion and intensity.  The music is what holds the mood together, lows to highs, torment to joy.  I would happily watch this movie with no dialouge; all costumes and music and awesome Art Deco wallpaper.

Which brings me to the bad:  I would rather watch this movie with no dialogue or story, like a ballet on film.  Because what these people do, Stravinsky and Chanel, in their selfish love affair, is despicable and gross.  And despite all the beauty on screen it can’t redeem the dirtiness of adultery.  But, that is a personal issue for me.  I find it virtually impossible to enjoy a movie with unlikeable characters.  And while both Chanel and Stravinsky’s independence and gall is admirable, the selfish place where it comes from is not.  This is not the kind of love story where you feel that they made each other better in the end, or filled a gap in each other’s lives.  It’s the kind of story that’s sexual and passionate and doesn’t give a shit about anyone else.

With that in mind, I wish this had been a short film, for the best part of the movie was all at the beginning, and it never got that good again.  The film opens with the premier performance of Stavinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in 1913.  You follow Coco Chanel in and watch Igor Stravinsky backstage with his family.  You see her elegance and his nerves.  Then the music starts.  It is beautiful.  It is new.  It is transcendent.  And the rich theater goers don’t get it.  They riot, they catcall, they storm out angrily.  All while Coco Chanel sits smiling knowingly at the stage and scene.  The attention to detail and history is spectacular, down to choreographer Vaslas Nijinsky screaming the count to the lead dancer as she leaps out of time, unable to hear the music over the din of the audience.

Watching this you feel transported completely to that place and time.  It is rare to watch such a revolutionary moment and actually feel it in your bones.  The distress of the rich and the excitement of the young, more radical crowd.  For a moment I am taken somewhere that I’ve only seen in my dreams, a place where live music is so powerful it incites a riot from the upper class and disturbs everyone’s sense of well being.  I loved every second of it, not daring to move in my seat.  The rest of “Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky” was like a slow wind down from this high, albeit a beautiful one.  I would have rather left 20 minutes into the film, with the exhilarated feeling of experience something truly special.

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