Sunday, April 03, 2011

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky

Directed by: Jan Kounen
Produced by: Chris Bolzli; Claudie Ossard; Veronika Zonabend
Written by: Carlo de Boutiny; Jan Kounen
Based on: Coco & Igor by Chris Greenhalgh
Starring: Anna Mouglalis; Mads Mikkelsen
Music by: Gabriel Yared
Cinematography: David Ungaro
Release date(s) 24 May 2009 (Cannes)
Running time: 118 minutes
Country France
Language English; French; Russian

Towards the end of the film, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, — a quasi biopic, and the love affair between the iconic French fashion designer, and the iconoclastic Russian composer, — after a lot of furtive lovemaking, both finally express their love for each other. Sleeping on the bed, Coco tells Igor: “We are both strong individuals, we are both alike.” Igor looks at her, and says: “No, Coco, you are just a shopkeeper.” For Coco, who is strong and independent, and far richer than Igor, this is the most insulting remark she had ever heard. Angry, she tells him, “Get out,” and the relationship is doomed.

Based on the novel Coco & Igor (2002) by Chris Greenhalgh, the films narrates the meeting of two people, both ahead of their time, and both breaking new grounds, — and their eventual break-up in 1920s Paris.

Wikipedia tells me: “Gabrielle Bonheur "Coco" Chanel (19 August 1883 – 10 January 1971) was a pioneering French fashion designer whose modernist philosophy, menswear-inspired fashions, and pursuit of expensive simplicity made her an important figure in 20th-century fashion.

“Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (17 June [O.S. 5 June] 1882 – 6 April 1971) was a Russian-born, naturalized French, later naturalised American composer, pianist, and conductor. He is widely acknowledged as one of the most important and influential composers of 20th century music. In addition to the recognition he received for his compositions, he also achieved fame as a pianist and a conductor, often at the premieres of his works. Stravinsky's compositional career was notable for its stylistic diversity. He first achieved international fame with three ballets commissioned by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev and performed by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes (Russian Ballets): The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911/1947), and The Rite of Spring (1913). The Rite, whose premiere provoked a riot, transformed the way in which subsequent composers thought about rhythmic structure, and was largely responsible for Stravinsky's enduring reputation as a musical revolutionary, pushing the boundaries of musical design.”

The Real Coco Chanel. More About Coco Chanel here.

In the film, Coco and Igor’s doomed relationship is bookended by two major event: The performance of Stravinsky's ballet ‘The Rite of Spring’ in Paris, and manufacturing of the iconic perfume Chanel No 5.

But, the focus here is patriarchy meeting feminist assertiveness. Coco Chanel is her own person. She sets her own rules. She wants to be a man in a man’s world. So, when she falls for Stravinsky's talent and charms, she demands respect and equality from him. This is a gambit Stravinsky is not used to. He is a classic patriarch. He has a wife who follows him and is his best critic and admirer, and who has bore several children for him. So, when he falls for Coco, he wants an admirer, a fan, not someone who is equal to him.

Coco Chanel believes what she is doing is not just business, it’s an aesthetic revolution; she is as creative as anyone else. But Igor Stravinsky is not ready to give her the credits. For him, his music is superior than designer clothes, even if it doesn’t fetch him money.

The film begins with the iconic performance of Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ opera, with its never-heard-before music pieces, and it’s robust, physical and primitive choreography. The performance, which was booed by the conservative Paris audience, runs for more than 20 minutes, and frankly, it’s the best part of the film. The composition is no longer performed as opera, and the sequence gives us a rare opportunity to observe and appreciate how the performance would have been which elicited such reactionary response from the public.

The Real Igor Stravinsky. More about Igor Stravinsky here. And about Rite of Spring here.

Coco Chanel likes the performance. Sometimes later, the composer, now an exile in France, meets the fashionista, and like magnets pulling each other, they come together. Coco invites Igor to live in her house in the countryside with his ailing wife and four children. He accepts the offer, and thus begins their affair furtively, since Coco is mourning the death of her lover and Igor has his wife. But Igor has fallen into bad days, and he needs inspiration. On the other hand, Coco is working with perfume-makers to create a perfume that defines woman, which would later be known as Chanel No 5.

But both are too strong to be together for long, and suddenly, the film ends, with the images of Coco and Igor in their old age, still remembering their lost love, and that extraordinary performance of The Rite of Spring.

The pull of the film hinges on the passion between the lead characters, played by Anna Mouglalis and Mads Mikkelsen. Both are good actors and they convincingly personify Coco and Igor, but when they are together, you expect electrifying sparkles. That’s what missing. This being a French film, there are several scenes of the pair making love, but passion is somehow missing, Mikkelsen’s Igor becomes too moody, and Mouglalis’s Coco becomes too cold and calculated. Standing between them, the scenes are stolen by Elena Morozova as Catherine Stravinsky, Igor’s long-suffering wife, who knows what’s going on, but cannot say anything because she is devoted to her husband and his music.

The film doesn’t give us a chance to understand Coco Chanel as a fashion icon. Here, she is presented as cold, calculated, ruthless, husband stealing bitch. There is a scene where Catherine Stravinsky asks Coco if she ever feels guilty of her actions, and Anna Mouglalis’ Coco, without changing her expression says, no. That’s Coco Chanel for you.

It’s interesting that the same year, there was another film on her, Coco avant Chanel (Coco Before Chanel) with Audrey Taurou playing the fashionista before she acquired her stardom. This film more succinctly explains how Coco Chanel became what she was. And when Audrey Taurou is on screen, you gotta love her.

The plot of Coco Before Chanel, from Wikipedia: Several years after leaving the orphanage to which her father never returned for her, a young Gabrielle Chanel finds herself working in a provincial bar. She is both a seamstress for the performers and a singer, earning the nickname Coco from the song she sings nightly with her sister. A liaison with Baron Balsan gives her an entry into French society and a chance to develop her gift for designing increasingly popular hats.

Coco falls in love with an English businessman named Boy Capel, who believes in her talent making hats and as a designer, as he says to Coco, "There's no one else like you". As Coco's business flourishes and life is going as well as ever, she is devastated when her love Capel dies in a car accident. However, Coco still has the business that Capel helped her start as a reminder of her love.

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