Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009)

Paris 1913. Coco Chanel is infatuated with the rich and handsome Boy Capel, but she is also compelled by her work. Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is about to be performed. The revolutionary dissonances of Igor's work parallel Coco's radical ideas. She wants to democratize women's fashion; he wants to redefine musical taste. chanel coco attends the scandalous first performance of The Rite in a chic white dress. The music and ballet are criticized as too modern, too foreign. Coco is moved but Igor is inconsolable. Paris 1920, Coco is newly wealthy and successful but grief-stricken after Boy's death in a car crash. Igor, following the Russian Revolution is now a penniless refugee living in exile in Paris. Coco is introduced to Igor by Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes. The attraction between them is instant and electric. Coco invites Igor along with his wife...

This lugubrious exercise begins with the recreation of a spectacular event in the history of European modernism at which both famous subjects are present. It's the premiere of Stravinsky's Rites of Spring with choreography by Vaslaw Nijinsky, presented under the auspices of Sergey Pavlovich Diaghilev at the Theatre des Champs Élysées in Paris on May 29, 1913. It's a hot night: fans flutter in the audience. Gradually the public breaks out in shouting and argument. The house lights flash on and off. The gendarmes are called in. The evening is a disaster but an unforgettable one. Nijinsky's rhythmic, jerky choreography, performed by dancers in exaggerated makeup and peasant costumes, seen up close here, still seems barbaric and shocking. The music, as much as you can hear of it over the murmurs and shouting, is raucous and gorgeous. Unfortunately nothing else in the film is as exciting as this, or has one hundredth the historical significance. A little affair between two famous people, Igor at loose ends, and Coco still mourning the death of her great love and early sponsor, Arthur "Boy" Capel, this never adds up to much. Coco Chanel views the momentous 'Rite of Spring' performance with the expression the actress is to have throughout the running time: a cool half-smile plays over her lips.

She doesn't actually meet Stravinsky till seven years later, in 1920, when she invites him to come to live at her country villa-- with his tubercular wife and their bevy of young children (who are never individualized). He protests that he is self-supporting, but he's not doing particularly well, he's an exile, and he's living in hotels, so he gives in. chanel new offers him a large room with a piano to work in and comfortable bedrooms for his family. Eventually she also offers him her body.

Stravinsky's wife, who is constantly unwell (and has no eyebrows) and who has to put up with knowing this is going on, is never without a pained expression. Poor Katarina Stravinskaya (Elena Morozova)! We feel for her, but we don't like her. The Stravinsky's spread around Slavic-looking cloths and even a gilded Russian icon to make their surroundings homier. "Don't you like color?" the wife asks Coco during a tour of the house. "As long as it's black," she answers. Everything in Chanel's world is black and white. That should be a warning.

As we learn in a dutiful interlude in Grasse, the perfume-making center in the South of France, this was not only the year of the designer's affair with the Russian composer but also the one in which Chanel No.5 perfume was developed. Historically, that was an event of more significance.

There is too little dialogue in this film. The affair doesn't seem particularly passionate. Why was the Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen chosen for this role? Because he has thick lips like the real Stravinsky? Because he can speak Russian and play the piano? Or just because the Dutch-born French director Jan Kounen felt some affinity with him? He never seems to possess the energy of the real Stravinsky, and certainly lacks the wiry physique. He has been wonderful as a villain and a spy, but as a Russian musical genius and a lover, he's merely stolid and sad.

Or were he and Anna Mouglalis chosen because the film was done in English and French versions, and both could do that? The half-Greek, half-French Anna Mouglalis, with her husky voice, elegant face and long neck, is a high fashion presence. In fact she has been chosen elsewhere by Karl Lagerfeld, the present incarnation of the house of Chanel, as the official ambassador of Chanel perfume. She also played, briefly, the Fifties singer Juliette Greco, in the recent biopic about Serge Gainsbourg. Clearly she had Lagerfeld's blessing, and she's more chic than the sweet-faced Audrey Tautou of Amélie, who played the designer in this year's other, more entertaining, Chanel flick. But Mouglalis has just the one expression, the half smile. It's hardly surprising that there is no chemistry between the two actors.

And with the focus on visuals rather than words, you can only wonder where all this is going, what the point of it is. Partly, it's to show off the spectacular period interiors of Chanel's black and white deco villa, and a succession of striking outfits handsomely modeled by Mouglalis (all this doubtless supervised by the indefatigable Lagerfeld), prancing around her house, taking them off to have sex with poor old sweaty Igor, delivering imperious commands to underlings at her couture house, being driven around in her Rolls Royce convertible.

Day-to-day life at the villa is deadly. Madame Stravinsky admits that her husband's music is going well, but nobody seems to be having much fun. The adulterous couplings are perfunctory. The Stravinsky boys know they're going on. Everyone is polite but miserable. "Don't you feel guilty?" asks Katarina Stravinskaya. By now we know Chanel will answer with a quick, cool "No."

She feels something, though, because after it's over and she and Igor start criticizing each other, she boasting that she's "more successful" and he dismissing her as "a shopkeeper," Chanel goes to Diaghilev and gives him a large anonymous gift, "for the Rite." (The great impresario's campy gayness is mocked: just before Coco comes in, he's seen "interviewing" a potential "secretary" by having him strip.) Chanel's handsome gift is enough to fund the whole season. It allows the "Rite" to be staged again, to great acclaim this time, so that Le Sacre du printemps bookends the film, though we don't see it performed at the end, we only hear Igor drunkenly banging away at it on Chanel's piano, after his wife has gone off with the children. "Cheer up, Igor," Coco says, toasting him. What is he suffering from, exactly? Apparently that cinematic disease, Tortured Artist Syndrome. You will be well-advised to avoid this good-looking but otherwise empty film.