Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky
Dir: Jan Kounen
Sony Pictures Classics
When British writer Chris Greenhalgh conceived the idea for his first novel, Coco and Igor, he imagined a world of revolutionary fusion inspired by a provocative, clandestine affair: a world of mingled passion and restraint, audacity and style, modernism and romance, epitomized by the juxtaposition of black and white – colors as absolutely harmonious in Chanel’s iconic creations as they are on the keys of Stravinsky’s piano. With Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, the exquisitely executed screen adaptation of Greenhalgh’s novel, director Jan Kounen brings this world to faithful and meticulously detailed life. The result is a stunning film: a cinematographic gem and a blend of artistic history and imaginative storytelling as intoxicating and yet alluringly real as the timeless fragrance that emerged from the brief period in which Chanel and Stravinksy’s creative energies were so intimately, irrevocably intertwined.
Greenhalgh’s story is based on a few simple facts and imaginative extrapolations which, when combined with evidence of Chanel and Stravinsky’s supposed affair, lent themselves to the theory of parallel lives evoked in Kounen’s film. In 1913, Stravinsky’s masterpiece, the daringly avant-garde ballet “The Rite of Spring,” debuted at the Champs-Elysee Theatre in Paris. Stravinsky’s audience – composed primarily of bourgeois season ticket holders accustomed to classical ballet – rejected the work immediately and left the theater in a scandalized uproar. Only a select and open-minded few saw the revolutionary implications of “The Rite”– including one young woman, an emerging fashion designer named Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. As Kounen so eloquently depicts it in his ambitious re-creation of “The Rite’s” premier performance and ensuing chaos, Chanel remains seated, unperturbed by the violent dissonance erupting around her. Captivated by the music and choreographer Vaslas Nijinksy’s raw, unconventional ballet libretto, Chanel sits as if alone in the dark vastness of the theater, feeling the sparks of inspiration and change crackle and ignite in Stravinsky’s score. It is a beautifully rendered scene, imbued with palpable fascination on Chanel’s part and an inherent sensuality primed to resurface upon their inevitable introduction.
The passage of seven years finds Coco Chanel a celebrity in her own right, a luminary in the illustrious sphere of Parisian fashion and an enthusiastic patron of Stravinsky’s struggling art. Chanel invites the composer, his wife and their children to live and work in her villa outside Paris – and the rest, as they say, is history. Or rather, in this case, it is a mélange of historical truth (Chanel and Stravinsky did live together at the villa, Bel Respiro, from 1920-1921) and conjecture (their affair has been confirmed by Stravinsky’s biographers and one of Chanel’s confidants, but never conclusively proven). But like any creation story of mythic proportions, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky takes the liberty of marrying slant truths and masterful imagining to explain the birth of Chanel’s now ubiquitous fragrance N°5, the revival of “The Rite of Spring” and the passion infused into both projects, that we mere mortals might catch a glimpse of the way in which two great artists and their most enduring legacies came into being.
French actress and Maison Chanel muse Anna Mouglalis plays Coco opposite Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen’s brooding, virile Igor with a fierce and statuesque elegance perfectly suited to the Chanel of Greenhalgh’s imagining. Both actors (aside from possessing distinct height advantages over their real-life counterparts) are ideally cast, and infuse their respective characters with a blend of magnificence, genius, individual quirk and human frailty that adds up to a sense of onscreen reincarnation. Picking up almost exactly where last year’s Coco Before Chanel (starring Audrey Tatou and Alessandro Nivola) left off, Kounen’s film provides us with the satisfaction of a sequel while simultaneously exploring a different Coco – one somewhat hardened by grief in the wake of her lover’s death and thus more suited to Mouglalis’s angular features and air of maturity than to the petite, firecracker appeal Tatou brought to her rendition of the role.
Not to be dramatically outshone even by Mouglalis’ beautiful, enviably chic evocation of Chanel, Russian actress Elena Morozova (cast as Stravinsky’s inspiring yet physically ailing wife and helpmate, Katia) forces her fictitious husband and captive audience alike to confront the reality and pain of Stravinsky and Chanel’s otherwise steamily satisfying affair with a power nonetheless potent for its subtlety. Her strength – in balancing anguish and fear in the face of her husband’s infidelity with gratitude and appreciation for Chanel’s generosity, independence and innovation – challenges love-triangle conventions. Whatever sympathy we may feel for Coco and Igor’s relationship, we cannot take sides easily: creatively, emotionally and even psychologically, Stravinsky seems to need both women. And Coco and Katia – respective emblems of excitement and solidity, modernity and tradition, passion and fidelity – are each untamable forces in their own right. What might thus have been a frustratingly ambivalent tale of romance and betrayal becomes instead a reality-affirming exploration of love, marriage, and creative obsession that comes closer to hitting the mark than most dramas of its kind.
Designed with the utmost care, together with collaborative efforts from Chanel’s artistic director Karl Lagerfeld, access to Coco’s own Parisian apartment and a seamless musical dialogue between Stravinsky and soundtrack composer Gabriel Yared, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky engenders a world as complex, stimulating and, of course, black and white as that envisioned in Greenhalgh’s novel. A somewhat melodramatic and condensed conclusion notwithstanding, Kounen’s film is a visual feast with real substance, artistic fervor and human universality at its core. Please, all you reluctant fellows and anti-fashionistas out there: do not dismiss this film as a chick-flick or “fashion” movie. There isn’t a whiff of The Devil Wear’s Prada anywhere near Chanel, nor an off-putting “girly” moment in sight. Instead, look forward to witnessing the high points of a transformative cultural moment in time, spiced up a bit by romantic intrigue but essentially, incredibly, captivatingly true.