Jan Kounen's Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky has an ungainly title -- although probably someone thought (and rightly so) that "Coco & Igor" would sound like some sort of horror spoof or a quirky romantic comedy.
But this film -- about a reputed affair between the Russian composer and the French fashion designer in the early 1920s -- is neither a horror nor a spoof. Rather, it is a fascinating bit of erotic elegance, one that examines an unlikely affair even as it delves into the creative process of two wildly different innovators.
Kounen doesn't go in for a lot of backstory. Rather, he starts with one of the most notorious moments in Stravinsky's career -- the 1913 debut of The Rite of Spring at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, when the audience nearly rioted in outrage at the dissonance of Stravinsky's music and the innovations of a ballet set to the music by Vaslav Nijinsky.
The film then jumps forward to 1920 and a meeting between Stravinsky and Chanel at a party in Paris. At that point, Stravinsky is almost penniless, saddled with a tubercular wife and a handful of small children. The Russian Revolution has turned him into an expatriate and his music is still too modern for him to earn lucrative commissions.
But one evening, at a cocktail party, he is introduced to Chanel, already the toast of the continent. Chanel, who happened to be in the audience the night of the Rite riot, offers Stravinsky and his family the use of her chateau in the country, rent-free, where he can have time to work on his music with her as his benefactor.
As played by Mads Mikkelsen, Stravinsky is something of a stick: ramrod posture, always elaborately turned out, showing little emotion about anything. He's a guy who lives in his head and considers the world an intrusion on his creative life.
In some ways, Anna Mouglalis' Chanel is his match. History tells us that she was, at this point, recovering from the death of her American lover, Arthur "Boy" Capel. Wealthy, influential, at the height of her fame and creative powers, she chooses to decorate her house in black and white, which are also the only colors she wears.
You get the impression that Stravinsky is cold, while Chanel is cool. But the chemistry between the haughty Chanel and the reserved Igor is sizzling. The film opens a window into two very different creative minds and shows the sparks they strike when they rub up against each other.
Their emotional exchange is something else, because Stravinsky is as much of a snob as Chanel. In his case, however, his snobbery extends to her work: He dismisses her as a mere seamstress, someone who sews for a living, rather than viewing her as an equal or an artist. Chanel has too strong an ego to allow herself a lover who denigrates her very essence, while indulging in her flesh.
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky has a restraint that masks a fierce passion, whether it is Igor for his music, Chanel for her work or the two giants for each other. Chris Greenhaigh's script, taken from his novel, extrapolates on possibilities, keeping their exchanges terse and pithy, rather than spinning off into scenes of verbal fireworks. These are two tightly buttoned individuals, both of whom barely show how they are suffering yet both of whom experience obvious pain at their ultimate incompatibility.
Shot with beauty and imagination, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky" sketches each of these characters in detail and makes their moment of union memorable.