For the people who love art direction, and feel that movies don't do - and probably could never do - enough to depict the glorious world of twenties-era Art Deco modernism, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky is the kind of visual feast that will seem immensely satisfying.
If only good looks and sleek, modern (yet uncomfortable and unhappy) sex were enough.
Movie sex has many variations and colors - though honestly, not that many - but rarely has sex seemed as simultaneously stylish and sad as it is rendered here. Chanel and Stravinsky, presented as avatars of a modernism just coming into fashion and both, in their ways, pioneering, embark on an affair that is also modern, sleek and ahead of its time. That the sex also comes off as mechanical and not entirely comfortable (say, on a wood floor covered only in a jute rug), is just to underscore how ahead they are and how not with it we are. This is copulation that doesn't worry about mundane matters like mutual satisfaction or how you would dryclean a hand embroidered silk coverlet. Pity the mortals who do.
Of course, we mortals also make up the audience and the net result is that for scads and scads of style, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky is a bit of a slog, not much fun, and once it gets the two titular characters together, there's blessed little left to do. Based on the real life story of the affair they had in the twenties, the film may have something to say about artists and their creative processes, or what it is to be larger than life... but we'll never know, because no one here says much of anything at all. There's lots of moody looks, simpering in and out of stylish rooms, and passionate piano playing... but not much else.
Still the film isn't a total write off. The richness of the deco design cannot be denied, and the film, for my money, went a long way towards rethinking Stravinsky's music by stripping away some of the reverence and unapproachability. The score is enriched by themes and variations of Stravinsky's works, and the musings about his process - snatches of dissonant chords and phrases that gradually meld into a larger framework - are fascinating if incomplete. It's the kind of film that could make you seek out further work for better understanding.
Chanel, unfortunately, is treated much more as a cipher and a distant, distancing muse, and there's little here to give the character breadth or depth. Her design process is shown in snippets that tell us little, and her famed shop seems devoid, oddly, of clothes.The film focuses, for a moment, on the development of Chanel No. 5, but even that isn't told in an especially compelling or interesting manner. She sniffs some test strips, acts kind of demanding,... and settles on, well, test fragrance number 5. QED.
The film opens with Chanel, in 1913, attending the premiere of Rite of Spring, part of the transformational role in ballet created by the original Ballets Russe. Carefully restaged, the film does capture a remarkable picture of what the event entailed - the audiences shock and revulsion at something so new and different, the confrontational modernism of Nijinsky's choreography, the rough edges of Stravinsky's score (the film posits conflict between Nijinsky and Stravinsky that I tend to doubt; both were sensitive artists... but the collaboration was productive for both). Chanel, naturally, gets it. Flash forward - awkwardly - seven years or so, and Igor and Coco are formally introduced, Chanel offers him her country house as a place for him and his family while he composes... and the two, in short order, are doing it on any flat surface they can find. Eventually - after several weepy scenes that make her part especially thankless - Stravinsky's wife confronts Chanel, in person and on paper, as an amoral bitch, and Chanel essentially agrees. Why shouldn't she? Isn't it all so frightfully modern? Get with it, people!
It's tempting to blame Mads Mikkelson for what doesn't work here; as Stravinsky he seems terribly miscast... but then, I've never understood his appeal as an art house sex symbol, anyway. And to some extent, it's unfair because the part is doing him no favors, and he does, in repose, suggest a thoughtful embodiment of Russian gloom. Anna Mouglalis is too tall and long of face to really look like Chanel... but her model thin glamour look and way of simping around suggests Chanel by way of Louise Brooks and is probably a notion of herself Coco would have loved. Even Suzy Parker hasn't done as much to make a Chanel suit look so sexy.
No, the real failure here is the weak script and the airless direction of Jan Kounen, so concerned with the look and the details, but not really having a story to tell. And Chanel's fascinating life and her role in transforming the possibilities for women continues to remain elusive and out of reach, continuing to deserve better than a distant, off-putting notion of modern sex and morals. Or a film that has the decency, at least, to tell us how you get the stain out of a white suit.