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'Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky': “Great Loves Too Must be Endured

A lavishly produced biopic imagines a rumored affair between couturier Coco Chanel and composer Igor Stravinsky as typically French; that is, passionate, inexplicable, cruel, unhappy, brief, yet somehow life-changing.

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky

Director: Jan Kounen
Cast: Anna Mouglalis, Mads Mikkelsen, Yelena Morozova, Natacha Lindinger, Grigori Manukov
Distributor: Sony
Rated: R
Year: 2009
Release date: 2010-09-28

Did couturier Coco Chanel and composer Igor Stravinsky have an affair in 1920, as was widely rumored? Coco & Igor, adapted from the novel of the same title, explores what might have happened, and presents the liaison as a pairing of modernist sensibilities. Like recent biopics Ray and Walk the Line, Coco & Igor focuses on a brief period early in its subjects’ careers, finding there a crisis that defines their creative and personal lives.

Chanel catches a glimpse of Stravinsky after the tumultuous 1913 Paris premiere of the Ballet Russe’s The Rite of Spring, with music by Stravinsky and choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky. He makes a strong impression on her, but the two do not meet until seven years later, after Stravinsky and his family have fled postrevolutionary Russia. Chanel offers to let them stay at her villa outside Paris.

There Stravinsky composes, and the two begin an affair. When Stravinsky refuses to leave his family for her, Chanel breaks off the relationship. A coda shows a later, triumphant performance of The Rite of Spring, for which Chanel collaborated on the costuming, and provides brief glimpses of the pair in solitary old age, each recalling their affair, she staring at a religious relief Stravinsky gave her, he playing the opening of The Rite on the piano.

Chanel and Stravinsky’s relationship seems particularly French; that is, passionate, inexplicable, cruel, unhappy, brief, yet somehow life-changing. At first, the lovers revel in each other; Stravinsky teaches Chanel to play piano, and the designer instills deeper respect in the composer for her artistry with fashion. Though the two never lose their passion for one another, Chanel cools toward Stravinsky when she realizes she’ll have to share him with his wife. At least that’s the impression she gives, though it feels like she’s looking for an excuse. After all, the quotable Chanel once said, “great loves too must be endured”.

A pivotal scene in the woods surrounding the villa succinctly captures the split. In a move that looks like a martial arts defense, Coco rebuffs Stravinsky’s advances, stiff-arming him until he relents. Here Stravinsky seems an impassioned dancer from The Rite of Spring, acting on primal impulse, while Chanel appears robotic, a controlled automaton not unlike one of her carefully trained seamstresses.

Coco & Igorpresents the lovers as kindred artistic spirits, each of whose work complements the other’s, just as the décor of Chanel’s villa—black and white palette, clean, sharp lines—contrasts sharply with the dissonant compositions Stravinsky plays on Chanel’s piano, as well as pieces by the composer included in the film’s score. In the making-of featurette included on the DVD, Chris Greenhalgh, who adapted the screenplay from his novel, invokes Plato’s myth of ideal lovers as two halves of an original being who have reunited. This reading places Chanel and Stravinsky at opposite ends of a continuum of modernist sensibility, with cool, restrained harmony on one end and haunting, primal discord on the other.

A more complex portrait emerges, however. While Chanel seems eager to see the two as like-minded artists, Stravinsky, in one particularly cruel exchange, disavows the notion by calling Chanel a “shopkeeper”. Indeed, Chanel’s commercial success and skill at innovation and promotion points to a stronger professional kinship with Ballet Russe impresario Sergey Diagilev than with Stravinsky.

Coco & Igor doesn’t shy away from portraying the cost of the lovers’ dalliance on Stravinsky’s wife Katarina (Yelena Morozova), who compels as much as the lead characters. Musically gifted in her own right, Katarina corrects her husband’s manuscripts, an apt metaphor for the order she brings to their family life, and Morozava animates the consumptive woman with all the complexity inherent in her difficult position. Chanel and Stravinsky are not particularly discreet, and Katarina must endure her husband’s infidelity as it unfolds right in front of her and the children, because the refugees have nowhere else to go, and because her family thrives in the beautiful rural setting.

As one would expect from a film about a designer, the mise en scène of Coco & Igor extends the film’s commentary on modernism. A particularly striking shot following Chanel down a spiral staircase lined by mirrors that multiply and fragment her reflection recalls Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 cubist painting “Nude Descending a Staircase”. In the film’s final moments, jarring cuts from the principals in old age to scenes from 1920 capture the volatility of modernist musical and visual arts.

Coco and Igor only very obliquely addresses Chanel’s political leanings. While no mention is made of her vilification as a collaborationist after the Second World War, a montage of footage from the Great War—troops, women at work in munitions factories, war dead, Lenin exhorting a crowd—abruptly gives way to Chanel making an entrance at a party for Russian exiles in 1920. The war, we can only assume, didn’t scar her, or affect her fortunes. “She makes even grief seem chic”, Diagilev comments drily, but in reference to the death of Chanel’s long-time lover, Arthur “Boy” Capel, in an automobile accident—not to the horror that had just convulsed Europe.


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