Sometimes, good things come
in threes; on other occasions, the third time is the charm. The
latter is certainly true in the case of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky,
a strikingly good film by Jan Kounen. It follows the lifeless
the stuffy Coco
with Audrey Tautou. Unlike those two films, this one takes an
artistic plunge, unafraid to engage in intuitive, free-flowing artistic
interpretation, in what is ultimately a cinematic fictionalization of
a hazy period in the lives of these two towering cultural icons.
Working from a novel (and screenplay)
by British writer Chris Greenhalgh, Kounen opens his film with an extraordinarily
bold sequence: a recreation of the disastrous 1913 Paris premiere of
Stravinsky's ballet, The Rite of Spring. Chronicling
this event in incredible, dramatic detail, Kounen's roving camera
captures Stravinsky's (Mads Mikkelsen) backstage agony, the stoicism
of his doting wife Katarina (Elena Morozova), and the pleasantly perplexed
response of a noteworthy spectator, Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis).
Beyond a swift introduction of the three main characters with near-silent
efficiency, this remarkable sequence treats us to a good chunk of Stravinsky's
music, as well as Nijinsky's original choreography.
Unfortunately, the Parisian
audience does not take kindly to Stravinsky's supremely radical work.
The crowd erupts into a near-riot, and the performance is halted as
police rush in to contain the melee. Chanel, however, could not
be more impressed, and when she meets Stravinsky at a party several
years later, she invites the composer, and his wife and four children,
for an extended stay at her country home so that he is able to concentrate
on his work.
The sickly Katarina spends
enormous amounts of time in bed, diligently copying Stravinsky's scores.
Her husband and Chanel have an almost immediate, unspoken attraction
in which they are slow to indulge. But when they do, they don't
hold back. Although the pair attempts to honor some semblance
of discretion, Katarina is no fool. Yet despite the difficulties
caused by their ill-timed affair, Chanel and Stravinsky serve as mutual
muses over a period that is crucial and productive for them both.
The special force of this film
is its unhurried pace and intense focus on the actors. Wisely
keeping dialogue to a minimum (which reduces the soap opera factor),
Kounen elicits three stellar performances. Mikkelsen's Stravinsky
is a pressure cooker of erotic yearning capped only by a tenuous sense
of self-respect. As Chanel, Mouglalis is beautiful, austere, self-confident,
and wary of her own emotions. She embodies a rare poise rooted
in masked vulnerability. Elena Morozova is a dignified Katarina,
refusing to play a victim or to feign ignorance, or to give in to Chanel's
"mannish" sense of superiority; Katarina is, ultimately, despite
her husband's failings, his savior.
This is the third Chanel film
in two years, and it wisely abandons the usual transparent bio-drama
fussiness over historical "accuracy," and instead finds richer
emotional truth in what is a factually speculative story.
Having seen the film during its original theatrical release, I can
confirm that the drab palette and "high cloud cover" light evident in
the transfer does justice to the film's intended look. The production
design favors earth tones and a color scheme that mimics Chanel's
own tastes. The outstanding photography is served well be a transfer
that shows good contrast and detail, with shadow delineation only occasionally
falling into muddiness. Overall, a solid job.
The (mostly) French-language soundtrack is mixed to 5.1 specs, and
it's a very involving track. From the stirring opening that
prominently features The Rite of Spring, to the later scenes
at Chanel's home, the soundtrack utilizes Stravinsky's music with
extreme care. The bombast of The Rite of Spring is right
up front and in our faces, just as it must have appeared at its premiere;
and later in the film, we can hear Stravinsky at the piano, often in
a well-separated background context, even when we are elsewhere in Chanel's
house with other characters. This excellent sense of ambiance
is the overarching characteristic of the soundtrack.
The only extra here is the twenty-minute The Making of Coco Chanel
and Igor Stravinsky. Unfortunately, it is little more than
an EPK piece. A commentary with the principal creative team would
have been most welcome, and so would a piece that discussed the writing
process in terms of the historical versus fictional elements of the
Kounen blends a grounded approach
to his characters with a classy technical sensibility and marvelous
editorial craftsmanship. Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky
doesn't just do the other Chanel films one better;
it stands alone as an exceptional achievement. Highly Recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.