It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film as sumptuous as Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. Exquisitely designed, lushly photographed and beautifully acted, this historic footnote to the secret lives of two of the most brilliant and fascinating people of the 20th century is absolutely mesmerizing. Who knew they were lovers?
Paris, 1913. Opening night of the Ballets Russes at the Champs-Élysées Theatre and the historic world premiere of The Rite of Spring by a revolutionary new Russian composer named Igor Stravinsky, a refined but destitute refugee living in exile. For music lovers of the haute bourgeois, weaned on Strauss and Tchaikovsky, it was like a stink bomb tossed into the middle of Maxim’s. The re-creation of the production’s pagan rites, replete with the visual splendors in décor, costumes and sets, is overwhelming. And so is the reaction, with Diaghilev and Nijinsky and the giants of the dance world dashing madly about in a hysterical panic as the hisses and boos began to swell less than five minutes after the curtain rose. Here was choreography staged in jerks and angles, accompanied by atonal percussion, violent brass and sawing strings, which elicited screams of “Outrage!” and “Go back to Russia!” The ensuing riot that brought the police was considered a major scandal, but at least one member of the audience was enthralled.
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel—the brittle, stylish, sharply critical, opinionated and demanding French fashion icon who was already taking the world by storm—was so intrigued that she made an early decision to turn the married Stravinsky into her live-in lover for however long it might amuse her. They didn’t meet until 1920, but the mutual attraction was so immediate that the wealthy couturier invited the penniless composer, his tubercular wife and their four children to live in her majestic country villa, Bel Respiro, where the luxury of peaceful gardens and fresh air offered a beatific escape for Igor to work creatively on his music (and to steal conveniently into her bed chamber at all hours for mad passion).
So much largesse in such close proximity leads to an inevitable affair that lasted for decades. Torn between love and loyalty for his ailing wife Catherine and his sexual addiction to Coco, the fabulous darling of Paris society, Stravinsky almost loses his sanity. Both lovers were non-conformists, geniuses in their originality, and seminal in their separate careers. While the film heatedly charts the sexual acrobatics in their relationship, it also parallels the way they inspired each other’s finest achievements: Long after the sex ended, she secretly financed his triumphant revival of The Rite of Spring in 1947, even designed the costumes with Stravinsky himself conducting. He encouraged the demanding, uncompromising precision with which she created the 80 ingredients in her signature Chanel No. 5, basing its modernism on Stravinsky’s music and the bottle on a cubic design by their friend Picasso.
With painstaking accuracy and attention to detail, Dutch-born director Jan Kounen re-creates the differences and similarities in two very difficult artists and their methods of working. He never began a composition with paper, but with notes transferred from brain to keyboard. She never began a design with sketches, but had to feel the fabric with her fingertips. His passion only intensified, but she remained too strong, self-reliant and willful to become any man’s mistress. At one point, someone remarks that “She makes even grief seem chic.” There’s plenty of tragedy, but nobody ever looked better in black.
Too bad someone has yet to make a movie about Stravinsky. He was the more interesting of the two—ending up in Hollywood, pals with Jean Cocteau, George Balanchine, Thomas Mann, Christopher Isherwood and Charlie Chaplin, conducting at the Hollywood Bowl, decorated by Pope Paul VI after a concert at the Vatican, arrested in Boston for his wild orchestration of the American national anthem, dining with President John F. Kennedy. He has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I wanted more of him, less of her.
Still, there’s enough material here to make up for any biographical oversights, and the visual opulence takes the breath away. The cameras take you to the actual lab in Grasse where the vials of perfume were tested endlessly before Chanel chose the one marked “No. 5” and the burnished splendor of the Champs-Élysées Theatre where Stravinsky made his shocking debut. Pages of production notes have been dedicated to the research archives and generosity of Karl Lagerfeld and the House of Chanel that provided real clothes worn by Chanel and made filming possible in Coco’s country manor in Garches as well as granting full access to her world-famous apartment at 31 Rue Cambon in Paris.
Happily, the film’s gorgeous look is perfectly matched and faithfully served by the perfection of the actors. Anna Mouglalis is a revelation as the fashion revolutionary who brought women into the modern world. Tall and ravishing, she looks nothing like the short, butch little Coco in photos who resembled Edith Head. No mention is made of her Nazi sympathies in World War II or her other love affairs with the celebrated and the infamous. But her mixture of steely toughness and cool beauty is an Art Deco delight. Less fully developed as a character but equally riveting as a presence is the Danish star Mads Mikkelsen, a handsome, brooding Heathcliff of a hunk who made a big splash as the dynamic villain in the James Bond movie Casino Royale. Any movie about two of the most dazzling influences on art and culture the world has ever produced has a lot riding on its stars. This one is lucky to spotlight two actors who live up to every demand imposed by the subject matter. But everything works miraculously here, making Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky one of the most bountiful experiences of the year.
Rex Reed is the movie critic for the New York Observer.