Exiting its premiere on the last night of Cannes in May of 2009, director Jan Kounen’s Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky recently tiptoed to the end of a its very long red carpet and made a glamorous appearance in the wilds of Upstate New York. Another few days and this sumptuous fantasy on Parisian culture on either side of World War I will join the eternal after-party that is NetFlix. Outside the Cinemapolis movie house just off Ithaca’s traffic-free pedestrian zone known as The Commons, the bongo-playing feral youth of these parts chanted and hackey-sacked. The mise-en-scène of hemp and homespun, cannabis and skateboards made for a vivid contrast to the silk and satin, premium tobacco and polished motorcars in the film’s brilliantly conceived and executed opening sequence, a recreation of the epic-making and riot-causing first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris with the exquisitely costumed Coco Chanel hearing the erotic power of Stravinsky’s pounding music, and showing it only in her expressive dark eyes.
Shot on location in and outside of this very theatre, which had just been completed at the time of the Rite premiere, this long scene follows a clench-jawed Stravinsky wracked by nerves as he patrols the back-stage corridors before taking his seat out in the house as Coco Chanel arrives through the front entrance of the magnificent building. The premise of the film purports to be their subsequent love affair—glittering novelistic embroidery rather than proven historical fact—but the real pretext is to breathe deeply of the intoxicating atmosphere of Parisian pre-and post-war fashion, design, and, to a lesser extent, music and dance. Kounen’s camera is an extremely suave witness to history, and it captures this greatg moment in theatre-going with an air of sophisticated detachment edged by excited anticipation. Onstage and in the audience the stakes and tempers are high, but the filmmaking retains a luxurious cool with occasional flares of passion.
The soundtrack pits Stravinsky’s music, mostly from The Rite — heard by the characters in the film, whether in the theatre or at the Steinway in the drawing room of Chanel’s villa on the outskirts of Paris—against newly composed cues. The orchestra that comments on the action, the so-called non-diegetic music, is the work of the Lebanon-born Gabriel Yared, a gifted composer with many film credits to his name, including the French movies Betty Blue and Camille Claudel, and English-language films The English Patient and the Talented Mr. Ripley. Sharing a soundtrack with Stravinsky could be seen either as a compelling challenge or a threat to be run from at high speed.
Stravinsky’s pulsing, rhythmically-driven music from the period from The Rite 1913 and through the early post-war years invented a style that has exerted a strong influence on film composers, especially when trying to pump up the on-screen action. Rather than go toe-to-toe with this heavy hitter, Yared leans back into the ropes of floating, ethereal idiom more reminiscent of Erik Satie, another collaborator of Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario who staged the Rite, as well as several other Stravinsky ballets, and who is played in the film with a refined and never over-the-top dandyishness by Grigori Manukov.
At leave-takings between the lovers Chanel and Stravinsky, and in tender moments after the pair’s rather unimaginative couplings on the fine carpets and bed linens of Chanel’s villa, Bel Respiro, where these scenes were actually shot, Yared’s music is called on to bridge the sometimes schematic turns of the narrative.
Some seven years after the The Rite, Chanel has invited the exiled Russian composer to bring his tuberculosis-stricken wife—played with magnificent tragic stoicism by Yelena Morozova in the best performance in the film—and their five children to her mansion. After the retreat to the villa, perfectly preserved for use in the film, the inevitable seduction comes at the piano. Chanel asks Stravinsky to teach him how to play. He gives her a simple, angular scale. Chanel goes with the line, elaborating the pattern as if it were cloth in her hands. Back at the piano Stravinsky hops around to the other end of the bench and begins a jaunty accompaniment This become the first of Stravinsky’s Five Easy Pieces for piano duet, now rendered as lovers’ flirting. From her sick-bed where she dutifully copies an corrects her husband’s scores, Katarina listens to this music for four hands and knows that the glamorous pair’s liaison can only be a few measures away.
Perfectly cast as Chanel, Anna Mouglasis’ fingers are much more elegant than those of Mads Mikkelsen’s Stavinsky. Mouglasis is the visual centerpiece of this décor-driven film: few celluloid sights have been more enthralling—her slender Chanel look, her defiant gaze, her presence as commanding for the audience in the 1913 theatre foyer as in the here-and-now of the silver screen.
Though his facial features, minus the distinctive Stravinskian beak, resemble those of the composer, Mikkelsen is a big man, known for his menacing roles as a drug dealer in the grueling and excellent Danish Pusher movies and more recently as a marauding Viking. Physically he lacks the sharp precision of Stravinsky, and he’s also shackled by the Russian language, confining himself largely to syllables such as the ever useful, “Da.” He’s given only a bit more linguistic leeway in the French parts of the script. Mostly he scowls, and occasionally bangs the table in anger when not astride Coco or scribbling at his scores.
With the ménage teetering towards calamity, Yared sends Chanel away in her Rolls Royce to the perfume center of Grasse with shimmering orchestral chords beneath a plaintive, almost aimless, violin that works in counterpoint with the zealous pursuit of Chanel’s on-screen goal: revolutionary women’s style . This music helps to put the chronology of the movie into soft-focus, stalling the already hazy narrative, as Chanel’s nose sniffs its way towards its destiny. Escaping the ambient smells of the Grasse parfumerie, Chanel and the parfumier seek to clear their palette in a nearby garden. It is here Chanel at last finds two scents she likes. She goes back and forth between the bottles, only one of whose labels we catch a glimpse of: No. 5. The music floats up with the mythical scent. Stravinsky has had his tumultuous Rite, now Coco’s even more influential aroma wafts up into the nostrils of history.
Needless to say, Stravinsky’s music gets the better of Yared’s, but I admire him for pulling his sonorous scrim over the spectacle. Yared’s music adds its own louche touch to the period proceedings, but also has enough fantasy to make these historical moments (like the discovery of Chanel no. 5) shoehorned into the main thrust of the film’s erotic confrontation, plenty of fun to look in on.
Yared is given the chance to mingle with Stravinsky right form the start, with the credits that come above rotating geometrical patterns that suggest the texture of expensive material. The sonority is lush and glowing, and woven into it is an unmistakable thread of melody: the opening bassoon solo of The Rite of Spring.
In a badly miscalculated narrative strategy, this becomes the film’s symbolic musical cell, not only giving birth to the historic performance of The Rite, but also to the short-lived, but never-forgotten, passion of the title figures. The plaint becomes a jingle for lust and its memory. Whenever the muscular Mikkelsen (who even drops and does some push-ups in the Chanel kitchen for unexplained reasons that probably have to do with a mixture of sexual frustration and pre-consummation physical conditioning) meets up with a piano he gives us this fragment. When Stravinsky is introduced to Chanel’s Steinway he pecks out that very theme, and when the film veers off into a late-in-life exercise in tandem reverie (Stravinsky in New York and Chanel in a geographically unspecified hotel), the composer sits at his lonely upright and plonks out the same melody with this his hook-like right hand.
These moments swerve into cartoonish parody—like Beethoven compulsively hammering out the opening notes of his Fifth Symphony whenever he gets within striking distance of a keyboard. But such foolishness does not diminish the cinematic achievement of that opening scene and the allure of a movie that rejoices in the surface and smell of things. After the primordial power of The Rite, it is best not to resist, as the film sinks into the perfumed bath of its own glorious decadence and we go under with it.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.