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Thread: COCO CHANEL & IGOR STRAVINSKY (Jan Kounen 2010)

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area



    Review by Chris Knipp

    Cheer up, Igor

    This otherwise lugubrious exercise begins with a thrilling recreation of one of the most spectacular and memorably polarizing public events in the history of European modernism, one at which both famous subjects are present. It's the premiere of Stravinsky's ballet, Le sacre du printemps, The Rite of Spring, with choreography by the greatest dancer of the age, Vaslaw Nijinsky, and presented under the auspices of the great impresario, Sergey Pavlovich Diaghilev at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on May 29, 1913. It's a hot night: fans flutter in the audience. Once the equally angular and outré music and dancing get going, the public breaks out in shouting and argument and some stomp out. The house lights flash on and off. There are scuffles. The gendarmes are called in. The evening is a disaster but an unforgettable one. Nijinsky's rhythmic, jerky choreography, performed by dancers in exaggerated makeup and peasant costumes, seen up close here, still seems barbaric and shocking. The music, as much as you can hear of it over the murmurs and shouting, is as thrillingly raucous and gorgeous as ever. The young designer Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel sits watching, elegantly aloof, yet somehow approving.

    Unfortunately nothing else in the film is anywhere near as exciting as this, or has one hundredth the historical significance. A little affair between two famous people, Igor at loose ends, and Coco still mourning the death of her great love and early sponsor, Arthur "Boy" Capel, this never adds up to much. Coco Chanel views the momentous 'Rite of Spring' performance with the expression the actress is to have throughout the running time: a cool half-smile plays over her lips.

    She doesn't actually meet Stravinsky till seven years later, in 1920, when she invites him to come to live at her country villa -- with his tubercular wife and their bevy of young children (who are never individualized). He protest at this offer that he is self-supporting, but he's not doing particularly well, he's an exile, and he's living in hotels, so he gives in. Chanel offers him a large room with a piano to work in and comfortable bedrooms for his family. Eventually she also offers him her body.

    Stravinsky's wife, who is constantly unwell (and has no eyebrows) and who has to put up with knowing this is going on, is never without a pained expression. Poor Katarina Stravinskaya (Elena Morozova)! We feel for her, but we don't like her. The Stravinsky's spread around Slavic-looking cloths and even a gilded Russian icon to make their surroundings homier. "Don't you like color?" the wife asks Coco during a tour of the house. "As long as it's black," she answers. Everything in Chanel's world is black and white. That should be a warning.

    As we learn in a dutiful interlude in Grasse, the perfume-making center in the South of France, this was not only the year of the designer's affair with the Russian composer but also the one in which Chanel No.5 perfume was developed. Historically, that was an event of more significance. Indeed even the look of Channel's villa, which is much dwelt upon, seems more important than what takes place among the people there.

    There is too little dialogue in this film. The affair doesn't seem particularly passionate. Why was the Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen chosen for this role? Because he has thick lips like the real Stravinsky? Because he can speak Russian and play the piano? Or just because the Dutch-born French director Jan Kounen felt some affinity with him? He never seems to possess the energy of the real Stravinsky, and certainly lacks the wiry physique. He has been wonderful as a villain and a spy, but as a Russian musical genius and a lover, Mikkelsen is merely stolid and sad. Or were Mikkelsen and Anna Mouglalis chosen because the film was done in English and French versions, and both could do that?

    The half-Greek, half-French Mouglalis, with her husky voice, elegant face and long neck, is a high fashion presence. In fact she has been chosen elsewhere by Karl Lagerfeld, the present incarnation of the house of Chanel, as the official ambassador of Chanel perfume. She also played, briefly, the Fifties singer Juliette Greco, in the recent biopic about Serge Gainsbourg. Clearly she had Lagerfeld's blessing, and she's more chic than the sweet-faced Audrey Tautou of Amélie, who played the designer in this year's other, more entertaining, Chanel flick. But Mouglalis has just the one expression, the half smile. It's hardly surprising that there is no chemistry between the two actors.

    And with the focus on visuals rather than words, you can only wonder where all this is going, what the point of it is. Partly, it's to show off the spectacular period interiors of Chanel's black and white deco villa, and a succession of striking outfits handsomely modeled by Mouglalis (all this doubtless supervised by the indefatigable Lagerfeld), prancing around her house, taking them off to have sex with poor old sweaty Igor, delivering imperious commands to underlings at her couture house, being driven around in her Rolls Royce convertible.

    Day-to-day life at the villa is deadly. Madame Stravinsky admits that her husband's music is going well, but nobody seems to be having much fun. The adulterous couplings are perfunctory. The Stravinsky boys know they're going on. Everyone is polite but miserable. "Don't you feel guilty?" asks Katarina Stravinskaya. By now we know Chanel will answer with a quick, cool "No."

    She feels something, though, because after it's over and she and Igor start criticizing each other, she boasting that she's "more successful" and he dismissing her as "a shopkeeper," Chanel goes to Diaghilev and gives him a large anonymous gift, "for the Rite." (The great impresario's campy gayness is mocked: just before Coco comes in, he's seen "interviewing" a potential "secretary" by having him strip.) Chanel's handsome gift is enough to fund the whole season. It allows the "Rite" to be staged again, to great acclaim this time, so that Le Sacre du printemps bookends the film, though we don't see it performed at the end, we only hear Igor drunkenly banging away at it on Chanel's piano, after his wife has gone off with the children. "Cheer up, Igor," Coco says, toasting him. What is he suffering from, exactly? Apparently that cinematic disease, Tortured Artist Syndrome. You will be well-advised to avoid this good-looking but otherwise empty film.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 06-30-2010 at 12:15 AM.


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