Love, beautifully composed
By Dan Kois
Friday, July 16, 2010
When the two modernist titans of "Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky" finally, you know, get down to business, they disrobe in very different ways. Chanel's unwrapping is elegant and simple: a single button freed, and her gorgeous white dress falls like the ceremonial unveiling of a statue. In the face of this self-assurance, poor Stravinsky fumbles with his trousers, his shirt and tie, his wire-rimmed glasses. Igor may be the most important composer of the 20th century, but he is a mere human. Coco, in this beautiful but indulgent French film, is a work of art.
It would be difficult for director Jan Kounen to make this movie look bad, filled as it is with beautiful things: to start with, leads Anna Mouglalis and Mads Mikkelsen, shot by ace cinematographer David Ungaro. But even more striking is the villa outside Paris where the film is set, surrounded by lush forest and perfectly decorated in Chanel's signature black and white.
And boy, is it indulgent. Two leisurely hours it runs, and -- aside from a dynamic opening sequence -- Kounen is more interested in artful tableaux than in drama. So this is a movie for aficionados only: lovers of 1920s design, fans of Stravinsky and devotees of Coco Chanel for whom last year's "Coco Before Chanel," starring Audrey Tautou, just wasn't enough.
The movie begins with the 1913 Paris premiere of Stravinsky's revolutionary ballet "The Rite of Spring." Kounen's roaming camera brings to life both Vaslav Nijinsky's daring choreography and the audience's wild responses: "Go back to Russia!" one wag shouts, while others get in fistfights at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. Backstage, Ballets Russes founder Serge Diaghilev flips the house lights on and off in an attempt to calm the crowd, and soon the police have stormed in.
But then the film skips forward to 1920 and slows way down. Chanel invites the struggling composer and his family to leave the Paris hotel into which they've been crammed. And so Igor, his consumptive wife, Katia (the otherworldly Elena Morozova), and their adorable borscht-eating moppets make their way into the countryside and are soon ensconced in the immaculate rooms of Coco's monochrome villa. "You don't like color?" Katia asks. "As long as it's black," Coco replies.
While lonely Katia pines upstairs, Igor gives Coco piano lessons, and the two provocateurs flirt to the strains of Gabriel Yared's Stravinsky-ish score. (The fact that it sounds like every other movie score is a reminder of how commonplace the avant-garde dissonance of "The Rite of Spring" has become.)
Once the couple's affair begins, though, the imbalance in the relationship becomes clear. Coco is debonair and arch; the long, lean Mouglalis plays her as a Chanel who buys into her own legend. Inscrutable Chanel turns Mikkelsen's serene Stravinsky uncertain and defensive, his only refuge his belief that he's an artist while she's a mere shopkeeper.
She isn't a mere anything, of course. She's as revolutionary in her time as he was just seven years before. So dedicated is Coco to the pursuit of her aesthetic that she inspects the salesgirls in her Paris boutique, making sure they look and smell ideal. A long (and questionably relevant) stretch of the movie follows her to the parfumier who develops her signature fragrance, Chanel No. 5; even surrounded by vats of rose petals, there's nothing soft about her.
Coco Chanel, in short, is substantially more interesting than Igor Stravinsky. While "Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky" never overcomes that disparity to portray a compelling romance, it does offer a few moments as inspired as that famous opening bassoon in "The Rite of Spring," or as singular as a Chanel frock.
Contains nudity and sex. In French and Russian with English subtitles.