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"Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky" has one foot in the Merchant Ivory camp of snobbish prestige films and the other in Ken Russell's sensational porno-biographies, where creative passion is inseparable from headboard-breaking sex. Coco and Igor were two of the great iconoclasts of the past century.
He composed radical, inflammatory music. "The Rite of Spring" depicts a brutal prehistoric ritual in which a young woman is chosen by her tribe to dance herself to death as a sacrifice to the gods; it still packs a dissonant, pulsing wallop. She designed forward-thinking fashions that liberated women from their corsets, ran her empire with single-minded determination and changed lovers like flower arrangements.
The film dramatizes their rumored affair in a whirl of pounding crescendos, stunning couture and smoldering stares.
Recognizing a kindred spirit at the notorious Théâtre des Champs-Elysées riot that accompanied "Rite's" 1913 premiere, Chanel reaches out to Stravinsky some years later. Already a successful couturière, she offers the financially strapped composer and his family a place in her country villa. He readily accepts a temporary home for his tubercular wife and four young children, with servants who can attend to trivialities and a grand piano where he can work undisturbed.
Soon, however, his patroness is creating distractions. She is ending a period of mourning following the death of her most recent lover in a car accident, and the brainy, brooding Stravinsky looks like just the man to help her move on. Stravinsky is grateful for her support, resentful of his dependency on her goodwill, and powerfully attracted to her. She sees in him the rare man she considers her equal.
A clash of titanic egos and handsomely toned bodies is not far off. Jan Kounen's film is ravishingly beautiful, but inhumanly cool. The severe black-and-white deco interiors of Chanel's estate suggest an elegant chessboard where pitiless mind games are being played.
There are no heroes in this love story between megalomaniacs, but there is a sympathetic victim. Stravinsky is selfishly manipulative of his wife and creative confidante, Katarina (the sublime Russian actress Yelena Morozova), who sees the affair through his evasions. Though the two legends consider her of little consequence, her soulful suffering should convince many Team Coco viewers to switch allegiances.
Stravinsky, who had the long nose and round, probing eyes of a lemur, is played by the attractive Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, who nevertheless manages to evoke his character's look and personality. He has the tight-lipped arrogance of a creative genius; his fingers pound the piano keys with the fervor of a man who can barely keep up with the music boiling in his head.
Actress and model Anna Mouglalis, featured in Chanel advertising campaigns for nearly a decade, plays the designer, but this is no polite hagiography. Mouglalis gives us Chanel with all the rough edges. She has the sharpshooter stare of a cold, calculating businesswoman, the hauteur and willpower of a creative perfectionist.
She and Stravinsky push each other to new heights, erotically and artistically; senses blazing, she finds the ineffable scent that will become Chanel No. 5, while his music takes a more reflective, emotional turn.
In a dreamlike coda, Kounen shows them each awaiting death in splendid isolation. The passion sparking between these remarkable personalities could never mellow into a bourgeois emotion like love.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186