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For Your Consideration: 'Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky'

Mads Mikkelsen (Stravinsky) and Anna Mouglalis (Chanel)
in Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, directed by Jan Kounen
Jan Kounen's new movie, released last year in France, fictionalizes a real historical affair, between two of the greats of the 20th century, fashion designer Coco Chanel and composer Igor Stravinsky. Richard Taruskin, in his magisterial biography of the Russian composer, outlines the basic facts of this episode: Chanel, who underwrote the first revival of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, in 1920 with a new choreography by Léonide Massine, installed the composer and his family in her villa in the Parisian suburb of Garches, where attraction led to seduction. As Taruskin put it, their tryst "apparently meant a great deal more to Stravinsky than it did to Chanel, who was collecting White Russians at the time" (p. 1516). It was Misia Sert, a fascinating character in Parisian life in this period, who introduced Chanel and Stravinsky: she is featured in the movie, played by Natacha Lindinger, but named only in the credits. As Taruskin notes with sage reserve, "Reliable details of this affair are naturally hard to come by" (footnote, p. 1516), and other writers who have relied on later recollections by the "notoriously boastful" Chanel, Misia Sert, Robert Craft, or Arthur Rubinstein have done so somewhat recklessly. At least, in terms of history, but for this sort of fanciful story, the standards are lower.

available at Amazon
R. Taruskin, Stravinsky and
the Russian Traditions
The screenplay, adapted by Chris Greenhalgh from his own novel, is not a biography of either Chanel or Stravinsky (for a take on Chanel's early life, see Anne Fontaine's recent movie Coco avant Chanel with Audrey Tautou in the title role), although it touches on some major accomplishments of both -- Chanel's work designing clothes in her shop and the development of her famous No. 5 perfume, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. For the latter, the film begins several years before the affair, with that work's infamous premiere in 1913, which it depicts in the long opening sequence (choreography by Dominique Brun, with a smaller number of dancers than Nijinsky used). Although this portrayal of the riot at the work's opening (people booing, people cheering, the conflict between classes as someone yells "Taisez-vous, garces du 16ème" at the wealthy ladies, the police entering the theater) may not hit all of the salient details -- a number of people wrote about what was said and done that night -- showing a DVD of this part of the movie could be an excellent teaching introduction to Rite of Spring, as far as providing a fairly accurate visual re-enactment of the tumult at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The tension among the artistic creators of the ballet -- Nijinsky's odd choreography, Stravinsky's high-handedness, the orchestral musicians worrying that their performance will fall apart, Diaghilev's manipulation of the scandal (later in the movie, there is hilarious scene in which he "auditions" a candidate for the position as his secretary) -- and the scenes shot on location give it considerable flavor.

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The two leads are convincing physically and dramatically: the long-lined body of Anna Mouglalis as Coco Chanel and the bespectacled, mustached Mads Mikkelsen as Stravinsky. They have a tangible chemistry between them, including some steamy sex scenes -- if teachers do eventually play the Rite of Spring scene from the DVD in class, be careful when you select the track! The most intense and certainly sympathetic performance, however, comes from Elena Morozova as Stravinsky's wife Katarina. In frail health because of tuberculosis, diagnosed when the Stravinskys lived in Switzerland just before moving to France -- it would later kill both Katarina and their eldest daughter, Ludmilla, and almost kill Stravinsky himself -- she is saddled with the burdens of four young children and the work of correcting and copying her husband's music. Morozova creates a mask of unease on her face as the family settles into Chanel's home, enjoying the luxury of their good fortune at first but soon all too aware that she is losing her husband to their hostess.

The film is beautifully shot, with some unusual angles and lens work (cinematography by David Ungaro), with gorgeous costumes (Chattoune Fab) and overall design to create the world of 1920s Paris (production design by Marie-Hélène Sulmoni). The visual beauty is matched by the music, supervised by Jean-Pierre Arquie, with pieces by Stravinsky interwoven with an original score by Gabriel Yared. The fine performance of the Rite, which percolates through the whole film, its savage rhythms standing in for the atavistic violence of the Chanel-Stravinsky affair, is by the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle. The only curious flaws are at the very beginning and end of the film: a beautiful but overlong title sequence, dragged out by a computer-rendered series of kaleidoscopic patterns, and the film's coda, a completely unnecessary couple of scenes showing Chanel and Stravinsky at the end of their lives. With both parties moving on to other involvements, the only reason for these scenes, hinting at regrets and life-long passion, was the superfluous desire to show off the aging makeup.

In the Washington area, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky is showing exclusively at Landmark's Bethesda Row.

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