Review: ‘Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky’
Second Chanel Biopic Focuses on Affair with Composer
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky.
Coco Chanel was the subject of the recent biopic "Coco Before Chanel." Now she’s the subject of another, "Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky" (opening June 18 at Landmark's La Jolla Village Theaters). This time the focus is on her relationship with composer Igor Stravinsky.
I always thought of Igor Stravinsky as the punk rocker of classical music. I grew up hearing stories about how the composer had previewed The Rite of Spring for my great grandfather, Louis Laloy, who was a music critic in Paris. I was fascinated by his account of how the premiere performance nearly caused a riot in the elegant Paris theater. So I was immediately hooked when the new film “Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky” chose this 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring as its opening scene.
The scene works well on a number of levels. First, it plays like a historical document as it depicts in detail the provocative performance and the audience’s boisterous reaction. It also reminds us how modern and daring the music and dance still are. And finally it shows what sparks Coco Chanel’s interest in Stravinsky.
In the world of fashion, Chanel (played with cool reserve by Anna Mouglalis) rocks the boat in a manner akin to what Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) does in the music world. So as the crowd in the Paris theater grows more rambunctious in its protestation, you can see Chanel’s interest in Stravinsky rising. But she’s a cool customer. So when she’s introduced to the composer after the performance, she feigns a lack of interest.
“Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky” follows on the heels of the recent “Coco Before Chanel,” and follows chronologically in terms of a historical timeline. Seeing the earlier biography is helpful in setting the stage for “Coco and Igor.” But “Coco Before Chanel” felt very much like a formula biopic in which the filmmaker tries – with 20-20 hindsight – to connect the dots of a person’s life. “Coco and Igor,” however, feels less structured and more vibrant as it looks to a pair of passionate artists who briefly connect.
When Stravinsky finds himself in financial hard times, Chanel – then an ascending star on the fashion scene – offers him and his family a place to stay. Her luxurious home also allows him a place to work. But the close proximity of these two driven artists proves too much of a temptation and they fall into an affair. It’s the intimacy of that relationship and the particular dynamics of these two headstrong individuals that gives life to this film.
Director Jan Kounen relies mostly on visuals to tell his story. Chanel’s elegant, black and white home defines her aesthetic sensibility and her personality. The production design of the film is as important to telling this story as the characters. That’s fitting in a film about artists who use their art to challenge the conventions of their time.
Chanel is drawn to Stravinsky’s talent and his willingness to take risks in his music. She thinks she’s found a kindred spirit but is taken aback when she discovers that he does not see her as an artist on equal footing with him. Instead, he seems drawn to her because she sets her own rules and leads a life in defiance of convention. Stravinsky, on the other hand, leads a rather conservative life but channels his rebellion into his art. So he’s somewhat bewildered by his own passions, and troubled by guilt when faced with continuing the affair and possibly leaving his family.
Kounen keeps the film from falling into biopic clichés. But unlike his subjects, he does slip into self-indulgence at times. Kounen has some overly produced scenes in which the characters feel more like props than characters. But overall Kounen and his talented cast succeed in bringing this passionate affair to vivid life.
"Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky" is rated R for some strong sexuality and nudity, and is in French and Russian with English subtitles.
Companion viewing: "Coco Before Chanel," "Nijinsky," "Henry and June"
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