Why, it seems like only yesterday I was reviewing a film about Coco Chanel’s love life. Actually, it’s been eight whole months since Coco Before Chanel, but here comes Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, which could be viewed as an unofficial sequel.
Like Coco Before Chanel, Jan Kounen’s Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is only mildly interested in Chanel’s high-fashion artistry and downright fascinated in her choice of bedfellows. I’ll let you decide for yourself what this says about the state of modern feminism (in which Chanel played her own small part). Chanel (played this time by Anna Mouglalis) shares the stage here with Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen of Casino Royale), whose 1913 ballet score for The Rite of Spring rocked the music and dance scenes.
In a captivating, fully realized recreation of the premiere with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, The Rite of Spring serves as the setting for Chanel’s discovery of Stravinsky. The electrifying performance provokes boos and walkouts, protests and select bravos, but it stirs something deep in Chanel, who curiously seeks out the man behind the music. It will be seven years until the two, in fact, connect, when Chanel invites Stravinsky—a hotel-dwelling refugee from the Russian Revolution—and his family to move into her villa outside Paris.
Stravinsky’s wife Catherine (Elena Morozova), two boys and two girls move with a mixture of excitement and bemusement, expressing gratitude and relief that Stravinsky will be able to work in peace. But it’s soon apparent that Chanel—her own work notwithstanding—has designs on Stravinsky, and the two begin a passionate affair in secret, for as long as that lasts.
Chris Greenhalgh collaborates with Carlo de Boutiny and Kounen in adapting Greenhalgh’s novel Coco & Igor. Kounen’s generally staid (but unfailingly handsome) direction benefits from the textured production design of Marie Hélène-Sulmoni, convincing locations, and the exceptionally resonant sadness of Morozova’s wronged wife. But the film rises or falls on the performances of Mouglalis and Mikkelsen, who give a fair go at conveying what runs deep under the still waters of Chanel and Stravinsky’s placid expressions. On rare and brief occasions, emotions boil over, but otherwise the two are studies in control, emblematized by Chanel’s self-satisfied half-smile.
Chanel has more of what counts: both self-control and control of those in her orbit. We see her at work, as a smartly rigorous taskmaster to perfumer Ernest Beaux in the creation of Chanel No. 5, and we see her turn her favors to Stravinsky as opportunities to justify taking what she wants. For Stravinsky’s part, his stormy music is the outlet for his frustrated sense of control. Chanel’s powerful “independent woman” fulfills his desire for a sexual partner who came to play (one, sadly, who is pointedly not the mother of his children), but it’s her very power that guarantees their relationship will arrive at an irreconcilable clash of egos.
Ultimately, Kounen takes two hours to say not very much; one imagines him constantly barking, “More smoldering!” since so much of it is conveyed silently, in looks and sighs. There’s no telling why Kounen frames the film with kaleidoscopic mandalas, perhaps an attempt to elevate a story of two people who had a thing for each for a while into a meditation on a shared spiritual source of art and attraction.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
Sony sends home Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky in a positively dazzling hi-def transfer on Blu-ray. Every nuance of the filmic image seems to make its way into the transfer, which gets top marks in every category: natural-looking film grain, spot-on color and contrast, inky blacks, and fine detail. Not surprisingly, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is similarly excellent, capturing the subtleties of ambience and bombast of Stravinsky's music without ever sacrificing any clarity of dialogue. A/V buffs will be in hog heaven—sorry, not very classy: let's say a state of bliss.
Bonus features are limited to the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:02, HD) and a single featurette, but it's a good one. "The Making of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky" (20:20, SD) offers an all-access pass behind the scenes of the production, and includes interviews with director Jan Kounen, co-screenwriters Chris Greenhalgh and Carlo de Boutiny, Anna Mouglalis, Mads Mikkelsen, Clara Guelblum, sound engineer Vincent Tulli, production designer Marie-Helène Sulmoni, line producer Philippe Delest, and Elena Morozova.
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