(2009) Biographical Drama (Sony Classics) Anna Mouglalis, Mads Mikkelsen, Elena Morozova, Natacha Lindinger, Grigori Manoukov, Radivoje Bukvic, Nicolas Vaude, Anatole Taubman, Eric Desmarestz, Clara Guelblum, Maxime Danielou, Sophie Hasson, Nikita Ponomarenko. Directed by Jan Kounen
Sometimes it’s difficult to see historical figures as flesh and blood human beings. We see them as perpetually engrossed in whatever it was that made them famous, be it war, music, fashion, politics, religion or art. Nonetheless, these giants and icons had time to live, love, eat and have relationships, both friendship and the next level up.
Igor Stravinsky (Mikkelsen) went to the 1913 premiere of his latest work, The Rite of Spring brimming with hope. It was to be the piece that established him as not only a great composer, but one who altered music itself. With a ballet choreographed by the great Nijinsky and a debut set in Paris at the Theatre des Champs Elysees. To his horror, the audience reacted not only with boos but with such passionate hate that a riot broke out. Despite the solace offered by his wife Katarina (Morozova), Stravinsky sank into a depression, but the performance was witnessed by young Coco Chanel (Mouglalis), then establishing herself as a leading star in the world of fashion.
Seven years later, Chanel ran into Stravinsky at a party. The great composer had recently fled his native Russia after the revolution and between that and The Great War was virtually penniless, and his wife now suffered from tuberculosis. Still a great admirer of his talent, she invited the composer to her villa Bel Respiro in Garches along with his family so that he could work undisturbed by interruption or need.
Like moths to flames the two great creative minds are drawn to each other, first as mutual admirers and then physically. For the next 18 months they have a torrid affair which they did little to hide from Katarina, who endured the humiliation with the wisdom of a woman who recognizes that her husband’s foolishness was merely temporary. Still, during this time Stravinsky would write some brilliant compositions and Coco along with her collaborator Ernest Breaux would create her iconic scent Chanel No. 5, still the most famous perfume in the world.
The movie is taken from Chris Greenhalgh’s speculative novel of the same name (Greenhalgh also co-wrote the screenplay). The actual affair itself was never made public although confidantes and biographers of both Chanel and Stravinsky have since confirmed that it occurred. Much of what is depicted here between the two of them is extrapolation; how much a muse they were to one another is extremely subject to speculation.
Both Stravinsky and Chanel are both depicted as being not terribly likable. Chanel is a driven, demanding woman who was uncompromising in her vision and in the sense that she knew her place as arguably the most important creator of style in the 20th century; nearly single-handedly she changed the idea of what was feminine and her Little Black Dress remains a mainstay for any woman’s wardrobe to this day.
Stravinsky comes off as aloof, arrogant and self-promoting. He, like Chanel, was perfectly aware of the musical revolution he was creating and was, like Chanel, driven to be the one to lead that revolution. Both of them seemed outwardly perfect for one another, although with egos that almost guaranteed that once the passion ran its course there was no way they could continue any sort of relationship.
Mikkelsen certainly resembles Stravinsky facially with his angular bone structure and heavy-lidded eyes. The composer is rarely given opportunity to show any emotion except to his wife and mistress. He had children but is rarely shown displaying any fatherly emotions. It’s not what I’d call a gripping performance, although Mikkelsen is certainly a capable actor; I’d describe it more as restrained.
Mouglalis is certainly beautiful as Chanel herself was; I’m not sure she truly captures the force of personality that Chanel possessed but she certainly tries; in defense of Mouglalis I’m not sure anyone could as Coco Chanel was by all accounts an extraordinary woman who simply dominated every room she ever entered. She was as much a force of nature as a human being and Mouglalis gives some indication of that aspect of her. When it comes to displaying her more human side, well, it doesn’t quite necessarily work.
The character who engenders the most sympathy is Katarina and Morozova nearly steals the show. While she is being cuckolded, she is certainly no fool and is perfectly aware of what’s happening around her. She alone understands Stravinsky’s music and his needs for acceptance and adoration; even though mostly bedridden due to her affliction, she spends an enormous amount of time transcribing the composer’s work. She is strong, never self-pitying and is enormously protective not only of her children, but also of her husband in subtle ways. It’s a wonderful performance and Morozova may well be an actress to watch out for.
The filmmakers do a fantastic job of not only recreating the disastrous premiere of The Rite of Spring (based on meticulous research) but also of creating Bel Respiro, which no longer exists and for which few images remain. The set design is sumptuous and certainly indicative of its time, the beginnings of Art Deco. Many of Chanel’s designs are used in the women’s costumes and this is as good-looking a production as you’re likely to see.
What I would have liked to have seen more of however is the hearts of the two icons. This is almost an intellectual exercise as we are shown how the two influenced one another. We see precious little of the souls of the artists other than what can be gleaned from their works, which might be the truest insights to their souls in any case. For a tale of a passionate affair, there is surprisingly little passion (although the sex scenes are somewhat heated, they are oddly un-sexy). I suppose that this isn’t really a love story, but still – I needed to have my feelings stimulated as well as my intellect and that just didn’t happen here. Be that as it may, this is still a worthwhile film to watch although those who think PBS is too highbrow may not agree.
WHY RENT THIS: A meticulous recreation of the infamous 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring. Sumptuous set design. Fine performances by leads.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly cool and emotionless. Appeals more to the head than the heart. Neither Chanel nor Stravinsky are easy to like.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sensuality, including some fairly graphic sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anna Mouglalis appeared in several Chanel ads before being cast as Coco. Chanel (and their then-chief designer Karl Lagerfeld) gave the filmmakers unprecedented access to their archives and Chanel’s apartment in Paris.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.8M on an unreported production budget; sounds like a likely box office profit was made.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Coco Before Chanel
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: First Position