Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Review: "Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky"
"Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky" is the second recent film about the life of the fashion icon. It and "Coco Before Chanel" actually debuted in France around the same time last year, but this movie is just now coming to American shores.
Strange how people like Coco and Truman Capote are ignored for decades, and suddenly filmmakers are fighting over themselves to do a film biography.
I will say I much preferred Anna Mouglalis' Coco Chanel to Audrey Tautou's. With her brazen stare and low rumble of a voice, her Coco effortlessly brushes aside society's conventions, whether it has to do with the clothes women wear or the independence she savors.
She's the sort of woman who can say to her lover, Igor Stravinsky: "You think a man is worth two women? I'm as powerful as you are, Igor ... and more successful."
It's debatable whether Chanel and the great Russian composer actually had an affair, but it's the sort of legend that is more salient than the truth. Chris Greenhalgh wrote the screenplay based on his fictional novel.
The story opens, briefly, in 1913 Paris for the debut of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." The audience was so torn by his cutting-edge use of rhythm and dissonance that it literally started a riot. Stravinsky and Chanel share but a glance.
Cut to 1920, and much has changed. Chanel is now a famous fashion designer, and her affair with Arthur "Boy" Chapel has ended with his tragic death. Stravinsky is virtually penniless, cramming his wife and large family into a hotel room.
Seemingly on a whim, Chanel invites the composer and his brood to stay with her in her luxurious villa outside Paris. Proud but destitute, he accepts.
I loved the scene where the Stravinskys are given a tour of their new home, which is decorated fashionably but monochromatically. "You don't like color, Mademoiselle Chanel?" asks Katarina, Igor's wife. "As long as it's black," she dryly responds.
Stravinsky is played by Dutch actor Mads Mikkelsen, probably best known to American audiences as the bleeding-eye villain in "Casino Royale." His performance is much more internal than Mouglalis'; we sense that the affair never would have started without Chanel making the first move. His devotion to his wife and family is genuine, but he can't escape her gravitational pull.
Mikkelsen's command of several languages in the film seemed genuine to me, and I consider it a compliment when I say that his mien is authentically Russian.
It's quite a thing to carry on an affair with the woman of the house while your wife and kids are sometimes literally in the next room, and director Jan Kounen clearly but subtly demonstrates the rotting effect it has on familial relations. The children play and pout like regular youngsters, but their eyes see the dying of the grace between their parents.
Yelena Morozova plays the wan Katarina, in a beautiful performance of sadness and dread. She's smart enough to recognize and even appreciate the bold way Chanel has ordered her life in defiance of patriarchal constraints, but herself is trapped in a prison of her own making. Katarina loves Stravinsky the artist, possibly even more than the man, and her greatest fear is not that she will lose her husband but that the affair will corrupt his musical gift.
"She collects people," she tells Igor, pleadingly but accurately.
"Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky" never quite convinces us of any deep soulful connection between the two -- it's more a lust story than a love story. But it's an absorbing tale of the intersecting orbits of two 20th century giants who each changed the world in different ways.
Even if it isn't true, we'd like to think it could be.
3 stars out of four