LITTLE ROCK — Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is a curious and moderately interesting film that, like many an initially torrid affair, eventually devolves into desultory ennui, with the two icons realizing they have nothing much to talk about and that, even if they did, neither of them is made for casual conversation.
Still, the film, which closed this year’s Cannes Film Festival, has a remarkable first half hour or so, as director Jan Kounen re-creates one of the seminal cultural events of the 20th century: the riot-inducing premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rites of Spring at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris on May 29, 1913.The standard history is that Stravinsky’s extensive use of percussive rhythm, dissonance and polytonalities was especially shocking to Parisians used to the demure conventions of ballet and that the increasingly complex music - in combination with Vaslav Nijinsky’s radical choreography - led to booing, which escalated into brawling between supporters and opponents of the work.
Kounen crosscuts between the nervous Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) pacing backstage, as his wife and musical collaborator Catherine (Elena Morozova) seeks to comfort him, while Sergei Diaghilev (Grigori Manukov), the founder of the Ballet Russes who’d commissioned the piece, switches the lights off and on in an attempt to quiet the increasingly belligerent crowd as the disconcerteddancers and members of the orchestra try to cope with the chaos. Meanwhile, Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) approvingly takes in the spectacle.
Seven years later, Diaghilev introduces Stravinsky to Chanel, who is mourning the death of her lover and patron, Boy Capel. (See Anne Fontaine’s 2009 film Coco Before Chanel, which starred Audrey Tatou as the fashion designer and Alessandro Nivola as Capel, for background.) Stravinsky has been forced to flee Russia after the Revolution. It’s not longbefore he’s installed - along with his wife and children - in Chanel’s villa near Paris, and at first both of these inventors of modern sensibility seem to enjoy a creative renaissance, which stems from their growing intimacy. Coco invents her No. 5 perfume; Stravinsky’s work takes on a new, liberated energy.
But the affair is complicated by Stravinsky’s reliance on his preternaturally understanding wife - and the movie is complicated by the cool elegance of the leads, neither of whom seem particularly solicitous of empathy, or even warm to the touch. The result is a rigorous and probably fairly accurate portrait of what it was like to be in the presence of these two. And, toward the end, it wasn’t pleasant.