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Movie Review: Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky Tries to Revive ‘La Petite Mort’

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The clothing industry was ripe for the picking when a strong woman named Coco Chanel set the fashion world on fire with her sewing machine and hand embroidery. She set women free and did for the clothing industry what Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style did for architecture. Their infusion of freshness resonates still.  Coco Chanel and haute couture were born, fertilized and thrived in French soil. The influence of Chanel classic clothing and prêt-a-porter still imitated but unequaled. So, it is no wonder that there has been a bevy of biopics about a woman named Coco Chanel. There was Coco (made-for-TV movie Starring Shirley McLaine) Coco Before Chanel (Audrey Tautou), and now what I call Coco After Chanel or Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, directed by Jan Kounen.

The film opens with a recreation of Stravinsky’s controversial 1913 debut of Rite of Spring.  It is the very best part of this movie. Igor Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) seeks to make the old new with an opera in Native American costume, performed by the Ballets Russes. He wants to open eyes with it. But this is not what his audience wants. It is not classical French ballet. What was Igor thinking? Because not only are the French the garment game changers they are also master of the ballet. On stage the dancers jump up and down, sway to-and-fro amidst rising catcalls. Fights break out in the audience and the cops bust through the front door. Lights on, opera off to a very strange start; where Igor wants to be modern he fails with this precocious try. Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) sits startled but deeply impressed in the audience; they have not met…yet.

Igor and Coco are soon introduced at a fancy salon party. The affair is on.  At the first rendezvous she proposes that he move into her chateau, tubercular wife and all. He accepts. Igor and Coco are both distinguished artists in their field now and under the same sexual roof the tempo increases. Coco walks to Igor’s room one night, a cappella they make love on the floor. Alone, Catherine Stravinsky (Elena Morozova) eventually hears this music when Coco interrupts Igor’s composing. Was there love between the couple? Love is not inferred in Kounen’s film.  It eschews love and instead tries to revive la petit mort between the two by dropping drawers in nude love scenes and rising libido but fails to impress. We follow this terminal love triangle that enthralls temporarily. Then the movie pushes back our attention on sex to the affair’s affect on both careers.

Chanel’s burgeoning empire is underlined. Independent women often posses a crafty, protean nature and Coco is no exception. Coco the entrepreneur wants to distill a potion, a perfume to accompany her clothes. She does not want to smell like a rose and demands a little alchemy from the French perfumers—they deliver Chanel No. 5.

Passion aplenty continues to bloom between Igor and Coco. His wife looks at his lust as a small price to pay for great music, but she needs to retain the reins of muse. Their marriage looks bleak too, since she is dying from within of tuberculosis and losing her husband at the same time. Catherine packs up to leave and Igor tries to dissuade her by saying that the affair is nearly done.  It makes no difference. She and the children will no longer inhabit the chateau and part for Biarritz leaving Coco a little note expressing her moral outrage. In the final thirty minutes, after the wife departs, things fall apart between the couple. They indulge in separation rather than fornication.

Then, in the last few minutes, the film flashbacks in slow motion like a person reviewing life before death. Igor and Coco have grown old and apart. The lust lost along the way with nothing to take its place. Separate lives and separate careers feed the denouement.  

Kounen’s Coco and Igor seem to struggle within their roles while they go through the motions in a gorgeous montage of frames that only fit together because we are told they do. I wanted to love this Igor and Coco affair. I was expecting Unbearable Lightness of Being but got A Little Night Music instead—an almost virginal effort from an accomplished director who had two rich subjects to inspire his direction. I was not really inspired by this beautiful period piece, but fairly entertaining French film, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes

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