Few films begin with the argumentative lucidity and utilitarian lyricism of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky. In spite of a plethora of dramatic flaws (icy performances, sloppy temporal transitions, and a lackadaisical third act), the movie must be conservatively applauded for attempting to render the epochal 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring with not only accuracy of espirit (if not quite material details), but an unprecedented sympathy toward virtually every apocryphal permutation of the event that has been subsequently asserted. A Steadicam first races through a collage of dressing room interactions and backstage hesitations, light-headedly capturing the widespread intimidation toward the material felt by the Ballet Russes and their orchestra. But as the bourgeois audience sits attentively while folk flutters of tonal conversation between bassoon and horn signal the opening curtain, Jan Kounen crucially resists the urge of mythic pandemonium.
Instead, we observe how an elite cultural class accustomed to the more melodically accessible dissonance of post-romantic composers such as Debussy or Mahler might have absorbed, or failed to absorb, Stravinsky’s dense, fitful polyrhythms as pounded out ruthlessly on the cello and kettle drum while pagan dancers flung their bodies in time toward the earth of the stage. No recordings exist that elucidate Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography meticulously enough to determine the veracity of the later assertion that the dancers, and not the music—which the patrons drowned out with their catcalls, forcing Nijinsky to frantically bellow the step timing from the stage wings—incited the “riot” (if indeed, we can identify a throng of petulant, pushy-shovy and hooty men in tuxedos as such). But Kounen, with disorienting, rapid edits and an endlessly rotating, proscenium-caressing camera, allows for both that revisionist possibility and countless others. What’s suggested is that the brazenly primitive audio/visual configuration of The Rite of Spring achieved an unbearably, and opaquely, aggressive climate, the residue of which one seems to sense even in contemporary recordings of Stravinsky’s less-than-loving sonic tribute to tribal brutality and nubile sacrifice.
That Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) becomes curiously drawn to the composer of The Rite of Spring after witnessing this scandalous debut is the film’s least grating contrivance; despite the puzzling failure to recreate very likely instances of prepubescent nudity in the production, the score’s pulsing beats and sensual trills seem propelled by an omnific sexuality that passionately complements Chanel’s concept of the liberated woman stripped bare of equivocating artifice. And while the first impressions of the Chanel/Stravinsky partnership appear oddly stiff and stolid (she praises his work and invites his family to stay at her countryside villa, he acknowledges her ubiquity and accepts her hospitality), there’s no denying the flight of modernist sparks about the potential of their collaboration in whatever manifestation (the mere thought of the two juxtaposed is enough to set one off in a flurry of dodecaphonic fanboy excitement). They were, certainly, two of most original thinkers and artists of their time, compatible not only due to vaguely anti-Semitic ideologies (an undeniable specter that rarely haunts their respective legacies), but a shared attraction to the modernist practice of toying with and deconstructing form as a way of uncovering essence. And in the film’s most eloquent moments, fascinating parallels are drawn between Stravinsky’s flittering, heated cacophony and Chanel’s cheeky, two-tone designs; where one can’t help but lose himself in the earthy angularism of the former’s music, the coldness of the latter’s couture is required to be worn as humanly as possible.
It would, however, be generous to refer to Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, or its source novel, as “dramatized” history; with scant evidence at his disposal, author Chris Greenhalgh has arranged a romantic potpourri of corroborated events, educated guesses, daring assumptions, and unabashed fabrications into what appears less a love story than a tale of fleetingly cohabiting egos. The inclination both had toward polyamory, their like-mindedly obstreperous artistic dispositions, and their similarly ravenous desire to soak in and conquer the culture of their time make their purported affair a fairly believable fictional ingress. But after Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) and his immediate family shack up with the philanthropic Chanel in the deceptively reductive opulence of her pastoral home, the film doesn’t quite know what to do with these coupling titans aside from watching them stew in their fecund, but ultimately corrosive, creative juices.
Still, the marination process is often thought provoking, even as it calmly bastes Coco and Igor with an insufferable talent-agony glaze. Each artist’s style is interpolated into the formal fabric of the film with intermittent success as we observe them toiling toward their well-known achievements: David Ungaro dexterously mutes flesh tones and natural hues to match Chanel’s monochromic fetish with geometric alignments of sunny off-whites and shadowy grays, but Gabriel Yared’s score makes such a leitmotif of the overture of The Rite of Spring that one would think Stravinsky wrote little else (in reality, he appropriated that seven-note melody from a Russian folk song). And Mikkelsen effectively portrays Stravinsky as a classically self-torturing artist; he only leaves the clutter of bars and staves swirling about his brain to tumultuously penetrate the conceited Chanel, who makes love to her live-in composer as though imperiously granting gynecological permission rather than caught up in the heat of corporeal compassion. But while the fling is depicted with piquancy and personality, the claustrophobia of the couple’s mutual predisposition toward romantic fascism prophesies its self-destruction, and eventually snuffs out our burningly imaginative interest in their story.
Greenhalgh and Kounen attempt to utilize the awkwardness of this firebrand pairing to their advantage, unspooling a more subtle narrative that investigates incidental influence that the two may have had on one another’s work; Chanel, for example, discovers her iconic No. 5 scent from crackerjack perfumer Ernest Beaux (Nicolas Vaude) between animalistic love-making sessions with Stravinsky, who in turn travails on increasingly emotional pieces for piano, strings, and winds. This airtight focus on the titular dyad, however, eliding all hints of relevant global upheaval, proves exhaustingly myopic: The Russian Revolution that forced Stravinsky to immigrate is glossed over, as is the metamorphosis of high taste in the 1910s that both composer and designer would catalyze. Aside from domestic conflicts arising due to Stravinsky’s ill, suspicious wife Catherine (Elena Morozova), who fears what affect the affair might have on her already neglected progeny, the film’s cadence is enforced by the central duo—by their jaundice, their egocentricism, and their perpendicular physical attraction. This leads to scenes of offbeat cuteness, such as when Stravinsky teaches Chanel to play a few notes on the piano, but it also facilitates moments of forced, megalomaniacal heartbreak: It’s probable that a serious composer wouldn’t think of a haute couture priestess as an artist per se, but would he parse it so brutishly as to bite the hand that had been (literally) masturbating him?
Most films fictionalizing historical romances eventually reveal themselves as simple love stories; the specificity of the characters or their accomplishments act as both tropic costumes and populist proof for the truism that at our most essential, we all want and wish and hurt congruently. Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky seems to consciously eschew that trend, showing us instead two individuals who may have viewed amorous emotions as antithetical to an efficient, nurturing environment where the rules of 19th-century tonality and fashion could be safely torn apart and then sewn together again with newfound fragility—and who may have, by inductive reasoning, viewed society as little more than a grand, squeaky machine in need of impartial Aryan oil. In its final moments, the movie forgets that its ethos is one of glacial genius ensnared in fleshy desires, but even this belly flop of a denouement maintains the ostinato of prickly, star-crossed truculence. As with the best work of its characters’ real-life counterparts, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky champions a human aesthetic both inaccessible and unlikeable, but alluring all the same.