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Jan Kounen directs this speculative account of a 1920s affair between composer Igor Stravinsky and couturiere Coco Chanel - two iconic modernists shaping a world in revolution
"Forget the Marxists and the Bolsheviks", declares the impresario Sergei Diaghilev (Grigori Manoukov). "Gentlemen, no more politics", agrees the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovic (Rusha Bukvic), before proposing a toast to the Ballets Russes rather than to the recent Russian upheavals that have seen most of the company at this Bohemian soiree exiled from their motherland.
Yet here in Paris, there is still the heady scent of a different kind of revolution in the air, as successful couturiere Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) is about to meet modernist composer Igor Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) - an encounter both artistic and erotic, which will set both on a course of radical innovation in their respective fields.
Not that this is the first time the paths of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky have crossed. Jan Kounen's film opens seven years earlier, at the 1913 world premiere of Stravinsky's groundbreaking The Rite of Spring. In an elaborate long take, DP David Ungaro's camera weaves fluidly from Stravinsky and the nervous preparations backstage, through the curtains, to the public taking their seats in the auditorium, Chanel amongst them.
"They're in for a surprise", comments Diaghilev, "they won't know what's hit them." He is right - for as the raucous music starts and the dancers begin their unconventional steps, slowly a riot breaks out in the divided audience - although Chanel, seated amongst them, remains seated impassively with a half-smile. She tries to meet the composer backstage afterwards, but is met with only a closed door.
Cut to 1920, and Coco Before Chanel has become Coco after Chanel. She is living a life of extravagant independence, her business is thriving, and she is now in a position herself to let in - or shut out - the composer she has admired for so long. Inviting the impoverished Stravinsky, along with his tubercular wife Catherine (Elena Morozova) and four children, to take up residence in her Art Deco villa, Chanel becomes all at once patroness, muse and lover to the Russian emigre, while emerging from her own grief for her lover Boy Capel, killed a year earlier in a car accident.
It is in this period that the newly impassioned Stravinsky will compose his Five Finger Exercises, while Chanel, working with the perfumer Ernest Beaux (Nicolas Vaude), will launch Chanel No. 5, the first perfume ever composed of synthetic floral fragrances - and even after their affair is over, Chanel will secretly finance a new performance of The Rite of Spring (with its score recently revised by Stravinsky), designing the dancers' costumes herself.
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky uses that most Gallic of story types, the tragic love triangle, to show an adulterous cross-fertilisation between different arts, where the success is all in the mix. Just as Stravinsky's special brand of dissonance was described by one contemporary critic as "Russian Vodka with a French perfume", here a friend mischievously suggests that the new essence Chanel is having distilled should be called 'Eau de Russie', while Chanel herself insists it will be "daring, like a blend - it's chemistry."
Likewise the film itself blends words, sounds, smells and images in a sensory amour fou, while also blurring the established boundaries between different classes, cultures and moralities, even between fact and fiction. Kounen orchestrates all his constituent elements - Chris Greenhalgh's speculative historical novel Coco & Igor (2002), Stravinsky's lavishly reconstructed ballet, Chanel's dresses and designs (combined with those of her successor, Karl Lagerfeld), the Russian composer's music (mixed up with Gabriel Yared's score) - into something that is classic and familiar, yet also new and of course utterly cinematic.
Mouglalis, herself a muse for Lagerfeld and Chanel model since 2002, brings both elegance and a bemused determination to Chanel, while Mikkelsen plays Stravinsky like a little boy lost, struggling to break free from years of repression and failure, and not quite able to cope with having a woman on top. It hardly matters that Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was in fact already recognised as a masterpiece as early as 1914, long before the composer ever knew Chanel.
It hardly matters that it was in fact Diaghilev, rather than Catherine Stravinsky, who introduced Chanel to the stylish potential of the Russian smock known as the roubachka. It hardly even matters that Chanel and Stravinsky may never even have had an affair. What matters is that Kounen has found a vivid dramatic form for the creative process, so that the complex admixture of artistic inspiration and execution is laid bare in a palatable (if bittersweet) romance. And coming from the director of such flamboyantly in-your-face films as Dobermann (1997) and Renegade (2004), Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky also represents a revolution in subtlety for the Kounen canon.
Exquisitely styled, beautifully scored and redolent of eroticism and artistry, Jan Kounen's sensuous film restages the creative process as amour fou.
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