If Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky have sex, is the 20th century born? That's what director Jan Kounen seems to be proposing in Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, his tantalizing, but ultimately disappointing tableau.
The film opens on one of the seminal events of modern culture, the uproar greeting the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) ballet, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky and presented by the Ballets Russes. Impresario Serge Diaghilev had already staged Stravinsky's Firebird and Petrushka to great acclaim, but the passionate primitivism of Le Sacre outraged spectators, with its dissonant score and dancers who stamped the ground and turned their toes in instead of out, like proper ballerinas. I want to be there, don't you?
The story continues seven years later, in 1920, when Chanel, a prosperous couturier (Anna Mouglalis), invites Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen, whose eye wept blood in Casino Royale), his placid dumpling of a wife and their four children to stay at her country house and compose without financial worries. Chris Greenhalgh's novel and screenplay suggest the artists had an affair, making beautiful music together, as it were, and inspiring Chanel to create her signature perfume, No. 5.
They were kindred revolutionaries. But watching the naked actors panting and moaning is distracting rather than illuminating. Coco and Igor are portrayed as brilliant but intense and humorless, and perhaps they were. But, it makes for cinematic longueur. Even more distracting is the fact that Mouglalis resembles Cate Blanchett, while Mikkelsen looks like Christopher Walken, which posits a juicer movie that could have been made. Still, the brittle Mouglalis does make a better Chanel than the far-too-nice Audrey Tautou did in last year's Coco Before Chanel (which is unrelated to this new film).
The décor is exquisite, especially Chanel's starkly patterned black-and-white chateau. Her crisply imagined geometrics are aligned with the pregnant scratch of a black music clef across white paper. But, the clothes by Chattoune & Fab are wrong. Apparently anxious to rush the designer into her easily identifiably flapper wardrobe, they have Coco wearing outfits inappropriate to 1920. Not many will notice, true, but it's a film about a legendary designer. Shouldn't her clothes be correct? (Perhaps Chanel would have approved of rewriting the costume timeline for maximum chic.)
The Rite of Spring portrayed a veneer of civilization ripped away to reveal savagery. The primal sacrifice of a young girl's life to ensure the coming of spring is a handy biopic metaphor for the sacrifices tortured artists make for art. If only Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky exhaled the same propulsive madness.