Movie Review: “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky”

This must have been what that first night was like. Nijinsky passing on last-moment instructions to the dancers, musicians scratching their heads, Igor Stravinsky nervously taking his seat, and impresario Sergei Diaghilev grinning at the society swells in the audience from behind the curtain.

“They won’t know what hit them!”

Indeed, they didn’t. The music, rhythmic, dissonant and evocative, began. The dance — primal, “native,” erupted. Followed by the audience — erupting. Walk-outs, boos, catcalls, angry shouts of “Go back to Russia!” Then the police arrived.

Strip away the titles for the opening credits of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, take the scene recreated there, and use it in art history classes forevermore — May 29, 1913, the world premiere of The Rite of Spring, the night “modern” began.

That dazzling, world-shaking intro would be hard to top, and this French film, scripted by Chris Greenhalgh and based on his novel, doesn’t live up to that bravura curtain-raiser. But it still manages to be a beautifully detailed if emotionally frosty account of the love affair between the great, groundbreaking fashion designer and the great, groundbreaking composer.

Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) was at that Ballets Russes performance, a budding designer battling her corset one last time before launching her one-woman revolution in women’s fashion. She is taken by the music and wants to meet the composer (Mads Mikkelssn of Casino Royale). There was entirely too much drama for that to happen that night. But seven years later, after a World War, after Chanel’s climb to fame and after Stravinsky’s wife has had three more children, they do meet. She invites the exiled Stravinskys to stay at her home in the country. And eventually, as he composes and she frets through one scent after another until her chemists unveil Chanel No. 5, they have an affair.

Dutch director Jan Kounen is deft at showing us the sex, inept at delivering heat. A romantic piano lesson during the film’s long, teasing flirtation is the sole moment of warmth between the lovers. Coco is “independent,” which translates here as a woman who gets who or what she wants, a woman who has lost the great love of her life and isn’t concerned about hurting Stravinsky or his wife (Yelena Morozova,, nicely playing the hidden pain).

Like the recent Audrey Tautou film, Coco Before Chanel , this Coco is driven, brilliant and effortlessly chic.  Mouglasis wears the clothes beautifully and suggests Coco’s acquired hauteur. But she and Mikkelsen, who isn’t bad either, give us little of the passion that one likes to imagine this affair produced. He thunders at the keyboard and she sniffs scent after scent, but the cause and effect promised by the film’s straightforward approach to romantic frisson never develops.

Lovely clothes, lovely scenery, a soundtrack interwoven with Stravinsky’s then-daring music and a couple of terrific sequences, both in the first half hour, may be enough for those fascinated by Coco. But two films into her current biography and Chanel remains, like that scent she drove to the perfume center of Grasse to discover — elusive.

Cast: Anna Mouglasis, Mads Mikkelsen

Director: Jan Kounen

Running time: 1 hour, 53  minutes

Industry Rating: R for some strong sexuality and nudity.

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