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Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky
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 made-for-TV Coco Chanel, and the stuffy Coco Before Chanel 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 lies in 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. 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.