Paris 1913. Coco Chanel is infatuated with the rich and handsome Boy Capel, but she is also compelled by her work. Igor Stravinsky's 'The Rite of Spring is about to be performed'. The revolutionary dissonances of Igor's work parallel Coco's radical ideas. She wants to democratize women's fashion; he wants to redefine musical taste. Coco attends the scandalous first performance of 'The Rite' in a chic white dress. The music and ballet are criticised as too modern, too foreign. Coco is moved but Igor is inconsolable. Paris 1920, Coco is newly wealthy and successful but grief-stricken after Boy's death in a car crash. Igor, following the Russian Revolution is now a penniless refugee living in exile in Paris. Coco is introduced to Igor by Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes. The attraction between them is instant and electric. Coco invites Igor along with his wife - now sick with consumption - together with his four children and a menagerie of birds to stay at her new villa, Bel Respiro, in Garches.
This is an elegant beauty of a movie. It’s as sleek and sumptuous as a Chanel frock. This French production is a film about how style can be substantial; about how ideas about Art can be smashed by discordant sounds and new lines and shapes. That’s content enough for half a dozen movies. But Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky is all surface. It’s pleasurable and interesting, as opposed to say, vacuous and dull; but for such a thematic challenge, a story about artistic iconoclasts, it's tamed by the conventions of the bio-pic and the screen romance.
It’s also and mainly a love story and for the first 20 minutes, it’s really exciting too. Jan Kounen begins his film with a long sequence where the two passionate heroes meet - the night famed fashion designer Coco Chanel (Anna Mougalis) attends the premiere performance of Stravinsky’s (Mads Mikkelson) 'The Rite of Spring’ by the Ballet Russes in 1913 in Paris. The seasoned audience are expecting melody and choreography to make the heart sing. Stravinsky and co. deliver strange moves and music that seems to be all pounding rhythm.
Kounen takes us right inside this moment of culture shock in a series of lovely vignettes of action. The nervous dancers, the skill of the musicians, the intricacy of Stravinsky’s majestic music seems lost on the crowd. Then Kounen cuts to a close up of Chanel and she’s enthralled. As the audience around her want to tear up the seats her face is a mask of pleasure. It’s a nice metaphor for the kind of romance Stravinsky and Chanel will make, since no love born in a riot is going to promise smooth times. What we get is a strange affair, one fraught with little betrayals and demands made impossible by gigantic egos.
Chanel and Stravinsky meet again in 1920 when Igor has hit hard times. His wife Catherine (Elena Morozova) is ailing and suffers her husband's moods with the dignity and compassion of a saint. Chanel is grieving over the loss of her lover, Boy Capel (Anatole Taubman). With a brood to provide for and money hard to come by, Stravinsky accepts Chanel’s offer of sponsorship; Igor will move his family into her mansion. A mutual admiration blossoms into a passionate affair delivered in classic romance fiction contours; Coco is attracted to Igor for who is, and the composer is alight with a passion that inspires him to write beautiful music.
Based on the 2002 novel 'Coco & Igor’ by Chris Greenhalgh, the film filters out the darker, unsavoury attitudes of its characters and presents them as odd eccentricities. Everyone is terribly sophisticated about everything; especially it seems, emotional cruelty. There’s one scene when Chanel gets fed up with her lover.
Stravinsky calls her a shopkeeper. 'I’m just as smart as you. And as much of an artist." This is a revelation to the great modernist. Soon after she runs off to conjure Chanel No.5. Greenhalgh says he wanted the story to be about how two great artists can fire off each other. He also wanted to reclaim Chanel as an important figure in pop culture history; someone, he says, who is a strong model for the 20th century woman. The movie pursues this conceit; while Stravinsky liberated music, Chanel freed woman from clothes that strangled them, like corsets.
Still, Kounen’s film is neither the triumphant modernist parable that shakes up romantic archetypes and expectations; nor is it a clear-eyed exploration of two difficult but fascinating characters.
It’s reverent and evasive. Shot in the kind of soft light that suggests cocktail hour and brochure spreads for up-scale resorts, Kounen seems fixed on creating a pageant of luxury around his two lovers to suggest their self obsession.
It’s not a movie about work or creativity. Mougalis' Chanel is a splendid clothes-horse and as a romantic lead she is fine and lovely. But her creative angst starts and ends with a wrinkled brow, while Stravinsky’s private tortures are played out with a lot of brooding.
Love is the real agony of self-expression here. Greenhalgh, co-scenarist Carlo de Boutiny and Kounen activate that ancient stand-by about creativity in Coco & Igor"¦ that artists are users and desire is the creative spark for Great Work. As the basis for a movie, it makes for a moving love story; but it doesn’t really make much sense of two messy, complicated true lives.