Friday, June 11, 2010

Rite of Passage

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky
Directed by
Jan Kounen
Written by Chris Greenhalgh; adapted by Carlo de Boutiny & Jan Kounen, based on the novel Coco & Igor by Greenhalgh
With Mads Mikkelsen, Anna Mouglalis

May 29, 1913 is a famous date in the history of classical music: Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring had its world premiere that night in Paris. The legendary rioting among the audience has always been difficult to understand for anybody hearing the Rite today; this inventive, propulsive, and well-known work is almost impossible to hear with fresh ears.

So it’s most impressive to watch the opening sequence of Jan Kounen’s Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky—based on Chris Greenhalgh’s novel about the reputed 1920 affair between the famous designer and famous composer—and witness a spectacularly detailed re-creation of that infamous May evening. The elegant men and women in the audience were transformed into screaming and violent antagonists by Stravinsky’s “shocking” music and Vaslav Nijinsky’s brutally percussive choreography. In this context, it’s easy to see why the ballet assaulted their refined sensibilities, causing the infamous riot.

After that eye- and ear-opening beginning, Kounen’s awkwardly-titled movie (Coco & Igor, the novel’s original title, is sufficient) settles down and becomes a mere conventional romantic biopic. Meeting briefly after the ruckus of the Rite, the designer and the composer meet again seven years later, and Chanel—doubtlessly still remembering how the primitive rhythms of Stravinsky’s ballet affected her—offers the cash-strapped composer (and his family) her villa just outside Paris.

Stravinsky, of course, accepts, and he, his sickly wife Catherine (Elena Morozova), and four young children move into Chanel’s place. (“You don’t like color,” Catherine says after their arrival, to which Chanel replies, “As long as it’s black.”) Stravinsky settles into a routine of composing on the piano in his study while the children play in the house or outside and Catherine stays in her room, knitting. The irresistible attraction between Coco and Igor soon becomes physical as they embark on a torrid affair that his wife can’t help but discover at such close quarters.

The movie doesn’t really excuse their lovers’ adulterous behavior, even if the music began pouring out of Igor once their affair heated up—which his hurt wife helpfully points out before she and the children leave. Coco, too, becomes inspired creatively, coming up with her famous Chanel No. 5 perfume, possibly inspired by Igor’s new piano works The Five Fingers and Five Easy Pieces.

Even though we hear several of Stravinsky’s compositions, the movie is schizophrenic when it comes to music. The Rite of Spring is trotted out often, which makes sense since it’s so familiar, and it’s always nice to hear Stravinsky’s rarely-performed solo piano music, but why not use all Stravinsky on the soundtrack instead of Gabriel Yared’s workmanlike but uninspired score?

Anna Mouglalis, a strikingly handsome woman, looks terrific in Chanel’s clothes and more physically resembles the real Coco than Audrey Tautou, who played her in Coco Before Chanel. However, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen looks all wrong as Stravinsky. Brawny and broad-shouldered, Mikkelsen is nothing like the short, thin composer, however closely he copies the signature mustache, hairline, and spectacles. The actor’s intense performance mitigates those dissimilarities somewhat.

Unlike Greenhalgh’s book—which begins and ends with Coco on the day she dies—the movie only briefly shows the former lovers long after their affair. This confusing sequence does little except reveal the bad old-age makeup on Mouglalis and Mikkelsen. Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky tries to elevate a short affair into a life-changing event for two cultural icons, and it may well have been, but the movie insistently (and unsubtly) hammers that idea home, to diminishing returns.
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