The first part of Jan Kounen’s Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky depicts the original encounter of French fashion designer Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) with the music of Igor Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) at the notoriously disastrous 1913 premiere of the Russian composer’s The Rite of Spring. This French film’s beginning is as brilliant as anything I’ve seen all year; unfortunately, most of the rest of the movie never lives up to that. The film is never actively bad, mind you, and there’s always something worthwhile just around the corner. However, not until the very end does it again have the same sense of urgency and excitement that marks its beginning.
Most of the film takes place during an undefined time span in 1920 when Stravinsky and his family came to live with Chanel at her new villa. The Great War has come and gone, and the Russian revolution is also a thing of the past. “Boy” Capel (Anatole Taubman), the great love of Chanel’s life, has died in a car crash. Stravinsky himself is at that time living in relative poverty and obscurity. It’s from this that Chanel decides to rescue him, giving him and his family a place to live, and him a place to work.
It’s unclear just how noble is Chanel’s emulation of Madame von Meck, Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky’s patron—and how much of this is instead grounded in Chanel being attracted to Stravinsky. For that matter, it’s possible that the assessment by Stravinsky’s wife (Elena Morozova), that Chanel “collects people,” may be closer to the truth.
It is historically accurate that the Stravinsky family stayed with Chanel, and it is generally accepted that she and Stravinsky had an affair. Kounen’s movie—based on the Chris Greenhalgh novel Coco & Igor, and not an historical account—fills in the details. Well, sort of.
As presented in this film, it’s almost a contest as to which of the two—Chanel or Stravinsky—is the less demonstrative and communicative. In fact, these are perhaps the least-chatty characters in the history of cinema—and they aren’t exactly free with their facial expressions either. That may be historically accurate, but it’s a little on the limiting side as concerns understanding the pair as characters. At best these two remain enigmatic; at worst, they’re little more than ciphers. Needless to say, this works against the film as compelling drama.
What we’re left with, however, is nonetheless a formally beautiful movie that often brilliantly uses the language of film to convey something of the complexity of emotion that the characters themselves don’t. Sometimes this is enough to make things work; sometimes it isn’t. It is, however, an interesting cinematic approach of a kind we see pretty rarely these days, and as such it’s rather refreshing as pure filmmaking.
It would have been truly dynamic, however, had the technique been on equal footing with the drama, yet that only happens on occasion in Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky. When it does, though, Kounen’s film truly soars—and you realize what a great movie as a whole this could have been. As it stands, what we have is a fascinating film with flashes of true brilliance. Rated R for some strong sexuality and nudity.