The first reel of “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky” is stunning. Over a half-hour span it dramatizes the first performance of “Le Sacre du Printemps” in 1913 Paris and the audience riot it caused. It’s brilliantly detailed, down to choosing an actor to play the conductor who closely resembles the young Pierre Monteux—and the glimpses shown of the performance suggest that choreographer Dominique Brun closely studied the reconstruction of Nijinsky’s original by Millicent Hodson. (Those wanting to see the whole thing are directed to the superb BelAir DVD of that version by Gergiev and the Marinsky troupe.) Even the fact that the “riot” might not actually have been quite so spectacular as shown here doesn’t matter (and one can certainly forgive the makers for failing to note that after that premiere, it became a sort of fad for people to go to the ballet to “riot” every night). Especially for music buffs, the sequence will be a joy to watch.
The following half-hour, in which—some seven years later—Chanel (Anna Mouglalis), the undisputed arbiter of style who’d been in the audience that fateful night, invites the composer (Mads Mikkelsen) to take up residence with his wife (Elna Morozova) and four children in her villa and they savor the joys of the elegant place—isn’t as remarkable, but it’s still quite fine. Of particular note is the exquisite look of the picture, with its gorgeous production design (Marie-Helene Sulmoni), costumes (Chattoune & Fab) and cinematography (David Ungaro). (In a beautifully-composed shot of Stravinsky writing at a desk, for instance, even the pencils sitting in a cup are perfectly posed by color—the green here, the orange there, the red to the side.) The score by Gabriel Yared, which mingles snatches of Stravinsky with his newly-composed music, is also excellent.
But while those visual and aural strengths continue into the second half, the film dries up just as a passionate affair between the composer and Chanel—under the very eyes of his wife—takes off. From the strains of “Le Sacre,” which is after all a picture of a fertility rite, that punctuate the action, it’s clear that the portrayal of the relationship is intended to suggest the primal urges in the species. But despite the occasional scenes of naked, sweating bodies, it never attains that kind of visceral power.
Much of the problem comes from the way the principals are characterized and played. Mikkelsen doesn’t really resemble Stravinsky, who even in his younger days was nowhere near so handsome as the actor, and his attempt to compensate by remaining stone-faced makes him impassively uninteresting. Perhaps he made that choice to complement Mouglalis’ stern, deadpan Chanel, who loosens up only once—and then very briefly—when she joins in a Russian dance. Otherwise the actress sails through the film like the model she is, even in a rather absurd sequence showing the “invention” of her famous perfume, where the “No. 5” becomes nothing more than the result of her selection of one compound over another. As depicted here, both of these characters are stiff, arrogant creatures whom you can’t care much about, and their relationship generates neither emotional heat nor intellectual light.
The only other character of consequence is Catherine Stravinsky, whom Morozova gives a certain morose dignity. At least she avoids turning the wronged wife into a screaming shrew, which would have been the obvious way of dealing with the triangle. That choice of director-writer Jan Kounen and his collaborator Chris Greenhalgh (who wrote the novel on which the screenplay is based) is a good one, but it also points to the fatal flaw of the picture’s second half—it’s so decorous and deliberate that the dramatic energy simply drains away. It becomes like late Kubrick without the gravity.
One can enjoy “Coco & Igor” somewhat for that extraordinary first half-hour, for the impeccable settings, costumes and cinematography, for the intelligent score, and for some of the secondary turns, such as Grigori Manoukov’s hammy performance as Diaghilev. But ultimately it makes one conclude that Chanel is simply not a great cinematic subject. “Coco Before Chanel” didn’t have much of a pulse, and this virtual sequel has even less.