The astringent new romance film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky might be the arthouse equivalent of that often-proposed high concept blockbuster Superman & Batman. Instead of “Who would win in a fight: Batman or Superman?” Dutch director Jan Kounen delivers: “Who would win in an affair: Stravinsky or Chanel?”
In the 1913 prelude, the ambitious young dress shop owner attends the most celebrated classical music event of the last century, the Ballets Russes’s Paris premiere of The Rite of Spring. To her bemusement, a riot breaks out between the avant-garde claque who had received free tickets from the wily impresario Sergio Diaghilev and the paying customers, who are outraged by Vaslav Nijinsky’s angular choreography and Stravinsky’s polyrhythmically pounding score.
Ever since, “Le Massacre du Printemps” has been portrayed as inaugurating a new golden age of music. Yet, looking back from the 21st Century, The Rite seems more like the grand finale of two centuries of musical glory, the greatest run any civilization has enjoyed in any artistic field.
In 1920, the White Russian composer is back in Paris, down at the heels after the Bolsheviks stole his homeland. At a party with Diaghilev and a man named Dmitri, he meets Chanel. She offers to put him, his tubercular wife, and their four children up at her gorgeous Art Nouveau villa in the suburbs.
At first, he refuses due to the impropriety. Although The Rite‘s debut was the most famous triumph of the bohemian motto “spatter le bourgeois,” Stravinsky was himself a starchy bourgeois, a modernist man of the right like T.S. Eliot, whose 1922 poem The Waste Land was likely influenced by The Rite.
Stravinsky eventually agrees to Chanel’s offer for his children’s sake. Mrs. Stravinsky, however, is not happy with being domiciled with France’s most chic exemplar of the liberated woman. Coco pursues him, and eventually Igor teaches her to play the simple right hand part in his new Les Cinq Doigts. Soon, they are making beautiful music together.
She gains the confidence to choose her new perfume—vial No. 5, not surprisingly—while he overcomes his composer’s block to venture into a neoclassical style that reflects her understated taste in clothes.
They break up, but she secretly gives Diaghilev the money to mount a triumphant revival of The Rite.
The last scene suddenly shifts to the early 1970s, when the protagonists are elderly celebrities separately inhabiting neoclassical hotel rooms (rather like the one in that unnerving scene near the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey in which the astronaut encounters his aged self). They pause to think briefly of each other.
A recurrent problem with musical biopics is that by the time the musician—whether Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, or Igor Stravinsky—finally triumphs over his personal demons, he’s over the hill creatively. Both Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Chanel (1883-1971) were vastly famous for the rest of their lives, but his peak was 1913. In contrast, she went on to make her greatest contribution, the invention of the Little Black Dress, in 1926.
This hazy bit of cultural history about the couturier and the composer furnishes director Jan Kounen with justification for an exercise in old-fashioned modernism, stylistically reminiscent in its enigmatic elegance of 2001 and its Soviet rival, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Stanley Kubrick used the fanfare from Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Richard Strauss to anchor his ponderous and baffling classic about killer apes and space aliens, so why shouldn”t Kounen build his love triangle movie around The Rite‘s polished primitivism?
Personally, I was held rapt for two hours by Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky. I was enthralled by the Russian’s music, the Lost Generation clothes, the decor of Chanel’s villa, and by Anna Mouglalis’s self-assured performance as the designing woman.
On the other hand, most of the audience found the movie too austere, too reticent, too eerie. Nor does it help that the tall, handsome Dane Mads Mikkelsen plays the squat, funny-looking, self-promoting Russian as if he were the monolith in 2001. The soundtrack is superb but emotionally opaque, which is the way the great man wanted it. Stravinsky, who endlessly expounded to the press on the Meaning of Modernism, asserted that “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all…”
The Modern Age is over, replaced by the Information Age, when expensive movies aspire to resemble documentaries. The abstraction of high modernism is now off-putting unless time-honored.
It’s hard in 2010 to watch this unforthcoming film without being pestered by a need for more data. Who are these people? Why isn”t there a narrator informing us of their back-stories? For example, who is this minor character named Dmitri?
Five minutes at home on Wikipedia reveals that he is Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, one of the assassins of Rasputin.
Now, that’s interesting.
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