Friday, July 30, 2010

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky at AMC

Posted By on Fri, Jul 30, 2010 at 9:51 AM

The composer Igor Stravinsky and the designer Coco Chanel were both immensely influential on the cultural development of the 20th century.

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky suggests the two were also quite influential on each other. Based loosely on the fact that Chanel was briefly Stravinsky's patron, offering he and his family use of one of her estates and the rumor that the two had an affair during that time, the film based on a 2002 novel assumes a great artistic co-dependence that would last long beyond the affair.

Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, an initially controversial ballet (the choreography was supposedly terrible, but the film makes it seem as though Stravinsky's ideas drove Paris to riot) that would end up having an immense impact on classical music.

Chanel herself had already had an impact on fashion by this time, advocating a casual aesthetic that emphasized comfort over form (though she hadn't yet made her fortune). She's seen in the films opening scene cutting her girdle apart before attending the 1913 premier of Rite. Chanel is taken with the dissonance and rhythmic emphasis and shifting tempos and also, we get the sense, she's taken by how much high society seems to hate it.---

In 1920, after World War I, Stravinsky has left Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution and is living like a pauper in a hotel. Chanel offers him her estate, the Bel Respiro (perfect name, given that Stravinsky's wife has tuberculosis), and the cogs of sexy, sexy fate click into place.

Their affair, in its dulcet early days, inspires Igor to turn from the hard angled modernism to the more sweeping, melodic neo-classicism that would dominate his mid-life. As things go south he's married and all, and his wife is living in his love nest, and may be tubercular, but certainly isn't blind to the naughtiness he gets drunk and bangs on his Steinway piano, creating ephemera that is every bit as beautiful as his neo-classic melodies, and even more disturbing than Rite of Spring. All the while, she's working to find the perfect scent of a woman. What would become her Chanel No. 5.

This is not a traditional romance, and not even a traditional story of period adultery. Chanel is famously emotionless (even the impossible-to-hate Audrey Tautou portrayed her as such in last years Coco Before Chanel), and Igor tries to keep all his many secrets veiled behind a stern Russian stare. There's personal appreciation and animal lust. Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is not a love story. And because each is sheltered behind their respective masks, the film isn't particularly insightful about the people or their processes.

Much of the film is mere porn for fashion geeks and lovers of the art nouveau the estate Chanel offers to Igor and his family drips with the style of the period and Chanel and Igor both look impossibly stylish throughout. Its two leads, Madds Mikkelsen as Igor and the stunning Anna Mouglalis as Coco, do an excellent job with the demanding work of appearing emotionless for an hour and 56 minutes, while allowing 10 or 20 seconds of deep longing or pain or joy squeak out at just the point the audience wonders if were dealing with robots. There's entirely too much style here, but what substance leaks out almost sustains the entire thing.

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky isn't a great film. Like its namesakes, the film is too aware of itself. Unlike them, though, the film has no outlet for this repression.

Director Jan Kounen would have done well to occasionally follow his leads Dionysian rabbit hole of pure creation. Coco and Igor find freedom there, but Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky never does.

What redemption the film does find for itself happens just there, however: in the performances of its two leads and especially Mikkelsen's depiction of the power that emotion, however childish and fleeting, has over one's art, and the powerlessness of the artist when in its sway.

When Chanel is staring out at you with her look of bemused worldliness and when Stravinsky is pounding away in an indulgent swoon or a mad distemper, the film is very seductive, and almost romantic, no matter how self-annihilating.

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Luke Baumgarten

Luke Baumgarten is commentary contributor and former culture editor of the Inlander. He is a creative strategist at Seven2 and co-founder of Terrain.