LocationAngelika Film Center 5321 E. Mockingbird Ln. Dallas, TX 75206
Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky is a hilariously straightforward title, and yet its lack of depth fits Jan Kounen’s film well. Beginning as a detailed examination of what it means to break new ground with a work of art, it becomes the story of a love affair—without the love. Despite good performances by Anna Mouglalis and Mads Mikkelsen, the actors have little to do besides stare and wear chic outfits.
But I will never forget the movie’s opening — a thrilling recreation of the premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” at the Champs-Elysées Theater in 1913. Kounen’s patience with this scene is masterful: the crowd entering, the orchestra warming up, Vaslav Nijinsky giving last-minute notes to his dancers, the inoffensive overture, and then the music. The ballet is short, and this film seems to deal with all 33 minutes of it.
So familiar to us now, the opening notes of “The Rite of Spring” were revolutionary at the time, as was Nijinsky’s dance, faithfully recreated here by Dominique Brun in all of its primitive jerking and jumping strangeness. The dissonance of Stringberg’s music sounds pleasing to our modern ears, but that’s only because he taught us how to hear music differently. He created new beauty in a medium that had been rehashing the same kind for centuries. The scene is thrilling as the audience begins to erupt into anger, some shouting at the music, some shouting at the shouters. It is a must-see scene for any artist, and Mikkelsen’s distress is affecting. The moment is necessary also in understanding why Chanel chooses to seduce him. Although she never voices her opinion, “The Rite of Spring” clearly moves her.
Then the story jumps ahead seven years. After World War I, Stravinsky is broke and exiled from Russia when he meets Chanel at a party. “She makes even grief look chic,” one character says, referring to the recent loss of her lover in a car accident. Stravinsky and Chanel stare at each other longingly, and the next day she invites him, his consumptive wife, and their four children to stay at her home just outside of Paris. They move in immediately, and the two artists soon begin a wordless affair, right under the nose of Stravinsky’s family.
Kounen and writer Chris Greenhalgh seem afraid to put too many words into the mouths of historical figures whom they never knew, but this reticence leaves the characters flat. Mikkelsen broods at his piano, and Mouglalis struts around and looks at people regally. After the affair begins, the film’s energy slows. By the end, watching it feels like trudging through thick mud. Kounen can’t decide whether he wants to delve into the complicated, narcissistic nature of this relationship, or portray it as the fleeting curiosity that it was.
Meanwhile, the many sex scenes are shrouded in an utter lack of passion. As in Last Tango in Paris, they are the saddest scenes in the movie, but they lack the thematic weight of Tango. They seem gratuitous, because what is really important here is the question of genius. By focusing so little on their work, and so much on this erotic foray, both Chanel and Stravinsky become increasingly unlikable. The extended finale becomes a Wildean portrait of empty souls. Coco seems to be sleeping with him only because she recognizes his genius, and wants him to admit hers. He never does, and little energy is expelled in her defense.
A film which pays tribute to brilliance is never as important as the great work itself, because it has double challenge of establishing the greatness of its subject and then finding its own. Coco and Igor finds Stravinsky’s through an act of re-creation, but then it fizzles out.