The second movie released in a year’s time to involve fashion designer maven Coco Chanel, the brooding drama “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky” delivers its goods on constant repeat. A fictionalization of the rumored liaison between Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) and the famed Russian composer (Mads Mikkelsen) in the 1920s, this spare, elegantly-made period piece creates a visually dazzling portrait of misguided passion. But the remarkable sights and sounds, which culminate with Stravinsky composing a masterpiece after the conclusion of his torrid affair, don’t quite overwhelm the lack of story. Instead, we get continuous overstatement: Sex! Art! Tortured artists having sex! The resulting experience is high culture in tabloid terms.
Less emotionally impacting than the sentimental Audrey Tatou-starring biopic “Coco Before Chanel,” this later period career arc functions as a semi-sequel, taking place long after Chanel solidified her international success. Director Jan Kounen sets up the meeting of his two eponymous subjects with a few perfunctory scenes in Paris (where Stravinsky premieres “The Rite of Spring” in 1913 to a riotous crowd) followed by the reconnection of the would-be lovers in 1920, in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Stravinsky, broke and struggling to support his family and his profession, hesitantly accepts an invite from Chanel to live in her lavish villa while completing his latest composition.
Almost immediately after his arrival, with Stravinsky’s family safely diverted, the clothes begin to shed. A significant portion of “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky” is dedicated to the forbidden couple’s frenzied lovemaking, a series of scenes almost sleek enough to qualify as a commercial for any of Chanel’s lavish props (her clothes or her home – take your pick). But the killer art direction amounts to little more than affluence porn. Kounen’s minuscule plot involves Stravinsky’s frustrated wife (Yelena Morozova) growing increasingly distant from her husband, as he continues to derive creative inspiration from the affair. Mainly, the movie revels in mood, lingering obsessively over the physical details of the affair as Stravinsky’s chief musical guidance.
It’s at once a wonder to behold and resoundingly empty. Kounen’s undeniably effective cinematic devices often establish the illusion of suspense, leading to a foreboding atmosphere that’s the core of the movie’s appeal. Mouglalis and Mikkelsen don fierce stares that underscore their respective intensities, turning them into stylized impersonations of historical icons rather than actual human beings, but their interactions have unavoidable sensuality regardless.
Still, the real star recognition belongs not with the movie’s two leads but its soundtrack, a collage of Stravinsky compositions that appear to erupt out of the solemn conflict. While “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky” fails at pulling together a full-fledged narrative, it wholly succeeds at enlivening the radical character of Stravinsky’s work. The opening Paris performance, defined by Vaslav Nijinsky’s wildly physical avant garde choreography, serves as a virtuoso act of filmed theater, filled with shrieking violins and jerky physical movements that generate an awe intrinsic to the original work.
The movie’s finale simultaneously provides an ideal cap to its hauntingly beautiful strengths and a glaring reminder of its weaknesses. In a primitive form of emo-like post-breakup rage, Stravinksy completes a dark, expressive tune that follows him to his senior years. Fading the details of Stravinsky’s life into his art, Kounen leaves a gap between the personality and the vocation perpetually unresolved. The mystery – and the chief pleasure of this stylistic exercise – lies with the music.
[Sony Pictures Classics will release “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky” in limited release beginning Friday, June 11th.]