Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky

Sony Classics June 11

 

By Patrick Z. McGavin 

 

Cannes Film Fest 2009 (Closing Night, Out of Competition)–A highly speculative account of the thwarted affair involving the great Russian composer and the legendary French fashion designer, Jan Kounen’s “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky” is an opulent and occasionally handsome production stultified by the ornate period decor.

 

Read review of the other Chanel film: emanuellevy.com/reviews/details.cfm?id=14215

There’s a huge difference between designing a pretty film and directing a compelling one.  As a movie, "Coco Chanel" is largely uninspired and even bloodless in the dramatic detail and emotional investment of the two iconic characters whose lives have been covered extensively in pop culture and the mass media.

This project originated as an English-language production to be directed by vet Hollywood director William Friedkin. That fell apart, and Kounen picked up the reigns.  The movie is almost entirely performed in French and Russian. It is a curious project for a director best known for his loud, aggressive action movies (“Doberman”).

Kounen worked on the script with Carol de Boutiny and Chris Greenhalgh, adapting the latter’s novel. The filmmakers never surmount the movie’s fatal problem. Stravinsky was a great artist but he’s not a terribly interesting man. The greater structural problem is that both these particular artists were creative, driven and brilliant at their particular work, but it is almost impossible to dramatize what they did in an interesting or compelling way.

The movie begins very promisingly with a spectacular recreation of the notorious 1913 Paris opening of Stravinsky’s modernist ballet “The Rite of Spring,” that ostensibly incited a riot. Kounen is at his best in the large spaces and physical action of the Theatre des Champs-Elysees.

The opening strongly details the radical staging and alienation techniques that startled the French upper class crowd. The elite audience included the young couturiere Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis), who’s suitably impressed with the dark genius of the brooding Russian.

Drawing on some highly evocative black and white archival and newsreel footage, Kounen sharply links the anarchic spirit and dark impulses of Rite to a much different kind of moral and physical eruption, the outbreak of World War I and the Russian Revolution that turned Stravinsky into a permanent exile, a refugee without status.

The story advances to 1920, where the composer and his quickly expanding family, wife Catherine (Elena Morozova) and four children subsist on the polite sponsorship of the Paris bourgeois. Introduced to the composer by the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev (Grigori Manoukov), Coco invites Stravinsky and his family to take up residence at her suburban Paris villa.

Whether the affair between the two ever actually happened, the greater problem is the film becomes very standard issue biography from the moment of their seduction. It is pretty, the costumes dramatic and telling, but the story is also too colorless and vacant to draw much excitement from the material.

Moving between the two realms of the artists, the movie tries to jazz up the conflict by drawing out the parallels of their different art, linking the anarchic and impudent Spring to the development of Chanel’s signature perfume.  The dramatic tension becomes the distressing and quickly deteriorating condition of the composer’s wife. “I don’t approve of your morality,” the wife tells the presumed mistress.

In reaching to describe the love affair, the filmmakers never quite get at the heart of either character. They are both revealed as cold, ruthless, impersonal and insanely selfish. Watching Coco’s lab technicians alchemize the different substances that eventually yielded the formula for his world renowned perfume No. 5 is perhaps historically accurate, but that’s almost beside the point.

It makes for a very pedestrian movie drama. Coco is characterized as a proto-feminist whose wealth and power granted her a great freedom to rebuke the social order. If anything, the movie never gets a darker portrait, of her haughty and imperial manner and that fact that she was a raging, self-serving opportunist (as her affair with a Nazi officer during the German Occupation in World War II proved).

The movie never reaches toward anything, never aspires toward an exciting or unorthodox confrontation between the two. “You’re not an artist, you’re a shopkeeper,” Stravinsky tells Chanel. Whether the affair between the two ever actually happened, the greater problem is the film becomes very standard issue biography from the moment of their seduction. The picture is pretty in terms of the costumes and decor, but the story is too colorless and vacant to draw any dramartic excitement from the material.

 

About the Director:
 
Jan Kounen was born in Utrecht, the Netherlands, and studied at the Arts Décoratifs in Nice, France. His feature films include Dobermann (1997), Blueberry (2004), the documentary Other Worlds (2004), Darshan (2006), 99 Francs (2007), the segment The Story of Panshin Beka from the film 8 (2008, co-director) and Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009).
 
Cast:
 
Mads Mikkelsen
Anna Mouglalis
Elena Morozova
Natacha Lindinger
Grigori Manoukov
 
Credits
 
Production Company: Eurowide Film Production
Producer: Claudie Ossard, Chris Bolzi
Screenplay: Carlo De Boutiny, Jan Kounen, based on the novel Coco & Igor by
Chris Greenhalgh
Cinematographer: David Ungaro
Editor: Anny Danche
Production Designer: Marie-Helene Sulmoni
Sound: Vincent Tulli
Music: Gabriel Yared
Production: Eurowide Film Production, 39 rue des Jeuneurs, 75002 Paris, France.