Film review – Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009)

Igor Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) and Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis)

After Coco avant Chanel, the second 2009 French film featuring Coco Chanel, the influential icon of the fashion world, is Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky. The film’s title blatantly states that its focus is on the period of Chanel’s life when she had an affair with the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, a period after the events that are depicted in Coco avant Chanel. Comparisons will be inevitable but these are two very different films. While Coco avant Chanel is a very conventional and somewhat bland biopic that mimicked the blockbuster-pseudo-art-house style of films such as Shakespeare in Love, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is a far more sophisticated work that may seem cold to some but will mesmerise others.

Director Jan Kounen creates an extraordinary set of moods throughout his film that reflect the constant shifts in the way Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) and Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) experience the world. They mostly exist in a muted and slightly melancholic state of mind that is only interrupted by moments of intense creative energy. They are an emotionally distant pair and the film’s muffled sound design generates a sensation of their detachment from reality. This detachment is further reinforced by their sex scenes, which lack romance and intimacy but are instead carefully framed and choreographed acts of stylised eroticism.

The film’s opening sequence, depicting the 1913 Paris performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring ballet that ended in a riot, wonderfully introduces this idea of their dreamlike world being punctuated with moments of dramatic expression. The sequence begins with a breathtaking long shot, reminiscent of single-shot film Russian Ark, where the camera seems to float through the backstage corridors, sneaks through the curtains onto the stage and then travels out over the audience. The mood of this shot is further emphasised by the warm yet low-lit sets that create the sensation of being half way between waking and sleeping. A dramatic change in mood then occurs when the actual controversial performance begins. The cutting between the orchestra, dancers and audience becomes increasingly fast as the music becomes increasingly confronting and the audience become increasingly upset. It is a sequence of immense power and a striking example of how to use rhythmic editing to create excitement and drama.

While the sets and costume designs of this film are also stunning the real stylistic triumph is its cinematography. There is a careful and disciplined approach to cinematography here that frequently evokes the stylised visual composition of Stanley Kubrick’s films. The framing in Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is absolutely immaculate and the steady camera work ensures that every camera movement has purpose so that even the slightest shift has a powerful visual resonance. The astonishing creation of mood and command over film style on display in Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky make it so much more than yet another biopic.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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