EYE ON EUROPE
"COCO and IGOR"
Anna Mouglalis as Gabrielle Coco Chanel and Mads Mikkelson
as Igor Stravinsky iin a scene from "Coco and Igor."
A love affair that left
its mark on the world
By MICHAEL JOHNSON
Two of the 20th centurys great creative forces intersected in Paris in 1919 and fed off each other for one magnificent summer. Man and woman, they plunged into a torrid affair, then split and went their separate ways. The world is richer for this brief encounter.
I saw the story recreated and expanded recently on the opening day of Coco and Igor, the new movie directed by Jan Kounen of Holland and offering us French actress Anna Mouglalis as Gabrielle Coco Chanel and Danish hunk Mads Mikkelson as Igor Stravinsky. This film is not Oscar material but for anyone interested in the creative process it is compulsive viewing.
The opening scene faithfully portrays the 1913 premiere of "The Rite of Spring," Stravinskys bold departure from all music and dance that went before. Within seconds, the camera zooms in on an entranced Coco, who by chance was in attendance. The riot that erupted has become part of American cultural history and the music that caused it is regarded as the key composition that broke with the classical and romantic traditions.
Most of the audience was mystified by the dissonance and complex rhythms, and booed with such vigor the orchestra was at times drowned out. But others applauded and cheered the revolutionary production, bringing Stravinsky, choreographer Nijinsky and the dancers out for four curtain calls.
Paris critics and the public remained divided but fans filled the hall for subsequent performances, and within a year Stravinsky was carried down the Champs Elysées by an adoring crowd, suddenly a cultural hero. He is now considered the most important composer of the 20th century.
London-based music critic Jeremy Siepmann, in a CD analysis of the composition, called "The Rite" a mind-bendingly complicated work. This short excerpt (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFjjGud4QLY), titled Glorification of the Chosen One, provides a taste of the compositions fierce attack. (The mugshot of the Boston Police Department relates to a later clash with Bostons finest over dissonant harmonies in Stravinskys arrangement of "The Star Spangled Banner," illegal under Massachusetts law. Stravinsky was released the same day after he convinced arresting officers of his good intentions.)
It was six years after "The Rite"s premiere that Chanel, who was making her own mark in her controversial new fashion house, cornered the Russian composer at a Paris reception and reminded him of the tumult of that opening night. Little detail is known of the affair. The script takes these facts and portrays the affair along the fictionalized lines of the novel Coco and Igor by Chris Greenhalgh, who also wrote the screenplay.
Although the affair is believed to have taken place mainly in Chanels suite at the Ritz Hotel, the film moves the action to her more colorful mansion in the Paris suburbs where she housed the impoverished Stravinsky family, including wife Katia and four children, for several months. Katia, not being stupid, moves out with the children when she realizes that Igors compositions have suddenly become oddly passionate. She knows.
As the two lovers spark off each other, the film shows Stravinsky in creative mode, trying out fresh combinations on the piano and scratching notes on paper. At times he stares at the blank page, daydreaming--and not about Katia. Meanwhile, Coco is turning Paris fashion on its ear with her couture bold designs. She also hops down to Grasse in Provence and works out the tonalities of a new scent that she called Chanel No. 5.
The point Koumen and Greenlagh seem to be making is that these fruits of their union--the music, the fashion and the perfume--all survive today.
Koumen keeps dialogue to a minimum, conveying the love story with long, langorous looks and a score made up mainly of familiar Stravinsky airs. Several extremely convincing love scenes show the two in bed, on the floor, in a cabin on the property, and nothing is left to the imagination. Cinema obliges, their bodies are several orders of magnitude more attractive than those of the real persons portrayed--nothing like Cocos and Igors short, scrawny frames.
This film is the latest in a series of recent biographical treatments of Coco Chanel that I wrote about last year in this space. (The Coco Chanel Movie Boom: May 11, 2009) The Koumen version was shown hors competition at the Cannes Film Festival last May, to critical acclaim.
©2010 by Michael Johnson. The photo is courtesy of Eurowide Films. This column first posted Jan. 11, 2010.
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