12:00 pm Jun. 17, 2010
The coolest thing about the new film Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky—which takes as its starting point rumors of an affair between the two great artists—comes right at the beginning. It’s over in just a few minutes, but it is very cool, indeed. It’s a recreation of the infamous opening night of Stravinsky’s ballet Rite of Spring, and it’s catnip for lovers of reconstructed historical performances—the kind of people who were raised on Amadeus and gasped in delight at Topsy-Turvy.
Although there are are apparently fewer dancers than actually appeared at Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on May 29, 1913, everything else about the performance is as it should be: the moody, dissonant music; the expressionist-peasant costumes and stark makeup; the startling, seething dancing; the gradual restlessness of the audience; the scattered catcalls; the shouting, the fights; the impresario, Serge Diaghilev, trying to quell the protests by flicking the house lights on and off; the choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky, leaning off a backstage chair and shouting the counts to the dancers, who couldn’t hear the orchestra over the din. The film’s director, Jan Kounen, doesn’t try to impose too much narrative. It remains unclear what, precisely, got everyone so heated. Was it the music? The choreography? The costumes? To this day, no one’s really sure. Most importantly, the film helps you understand—as you almost never do—how the ballet could have elicited a riot. Weird and menacing, in Kounen’s version it still has the power to disturb.
It’s too bad that the other 80 percent of the movie has far less power. The film, like the 2002 novel on which it was based, was inspired by the fun fact that Coco Chanel turns out to have been present at that dramatic opening night. The remaining facts about their connection have long been known. Stravinsky, his wife, and his four children were guests at Chanel’s villa outside Paris in 1920 and ’21. The designer sponsored the triumphant revival of Rite of Spring at the same time, and she continued to support Stravinsky’s career for years.
Were they sleeping together, though? Weren’t they? It’s certainly possible—Stravinsky wasn’t shy about adultery, and began an affair with Vera de Bosset, who would become his second wife, early in 1921. But a Chanel-Stravinsky romance is hard to confirm, since there’s little information and no surviving correspondence. As Chris Greenhalgh, the author of the novel Coco & Igor, said in an interview, “I was able to take the essential facts and imagine and invent the rest.”
That’s well and good, if what you’ve invented is dramatically compelling. But the film, after that vivid opening, just isn’t. The plot, which unfolds mostly at Chanel’s villa, certainly matches the opening scene in sheer visual splendour. Befitting a movie whose main character is one of the major figures in the history of fashion, the clothes are beautiful. (The filmmakers were allowed to raid the Chanel archives, and Karl Lagerfeld designed a few new dresses for Anna Mouglalis, who plays the designer and just happens to be one of Lagerfeld’s muses.)
But the movie is content with Merchant-Ivory-esque brooding rather than the development of characters or much of a plot. The actors are good and moody, but they’re given little to do except glare at each other meaningfully. (Mads Mikkelsen, as Stravinsky, does get to sweep all the papers off his desk at one point.) The film’s publicity echoes the novel’s title—Coco & Igor—but its strange to assume right off the bat this degree of informality with figures we end up knowing only distantly. Even the sex scenes are inert, all filtered light and strings of pearls. It says a lot about the film’s priorities that Chanel and Stravinsky at one point make love on exquisitely embroidered silk sheets that are far more alluring than the “real” action.
As far as the sex, the film perpetuates the great cinematic myth that erotic satisfaction is directly tied to enhanced creativity. “Your music has more passion,” Stravinsky’s wife Catherine (played by the excellent Elena Morozova) tells him, and her resigned face makes it clear that this is evidence that she’s lost him. Similarly, Chanel, in the wake of sex, travels to Grasse and is able to coolly select her masterpiece, the classic perfume No. 5.
Perhaps it wouldn’t seem so objectionable to invoke all this passion if the movie itself were more authentically passionate. But despite the huge personalities and the torrid affair and the major cultural events, the film’s emotional stakes remain oddly low. The temperature rises not when the famous protagonists go to bed, but when, in that opening scene, they share something which turns out to be a lot more sensually satisfying: a night at the theater.
More by this author:
- Marilyn Horne, who ruled American opera in the 1970s, trains a new generation for a very different art
- Model citizen: Composer Eric Whitacre, dashing star of high-school choruses worldwide, makes the big bucks