Saturday, July 24, 2010

Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky

"And Then the World Tilted..."

I was attracted to this icily erotic French film by its promise to dramatize one of the great contretemps of the Art-world, the May 29, 1913 premiere of "Le Sacre du Printemps" at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where the combination of Stravinsky's score for the Ballets Russes and Vaslav Nijinsky's radical choreography caused a riot in the theater.  The incident has become fabled and even famously made it into film criticism,* the impression being that fist-fights were breaking out among the tuxedoed intelligentsia.  But, in the film "Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky," it is presented, not as a riot of the soccer hooligan variety, but rather some rather rude behavior on the part of a few incensed art patrons, cat-called by opposing members of the audience, until the gendarmes arrive and break things up.  Riots, as with real estate, depend on "location, location, location."  This was, after all, an opera house filled with tuxedoes and stuffed shirts.

Composer Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelson) is humiliated by the incident, but it fascinates fashion diva Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis**), in the audience, to the point where she offers patronage to the composer at her villa.  Too proud to accept money, he does accept residence for his tubercular wife and clutch of children...and a study for his composing.  The country estate is just the breath of fresh air the family needs, and the space and time the composer requires to further his career.

But what does Chanel need?  In mourning after the death of her lover ("She even makes grief look chic"), moved by the music she heard, and very much "an independent woman" (after a fashion) her motives may be altruistic, but at this stage in her life they may be more direct.  At one point, showing the Stravinskys their bedroom at the villa, the composer's wife notes the high-contrast black and white palette of the room.  "You don't like color, Mademoiselle Chanel..." "As long as it's black" is the assured reply.

She might also be drawn to a kindred spiritBoth she and Stravinsky are glaciers, moving slowly, not revealing much fire except through their work, very much interior people.  But where she is direct ("I'm late"), he is circumspect ("I am patient"). Both are precise and intricate and do not broach compromises;  she likes clear strong lines and simplicity in fashion and he writes brutal hard edged dissonances.  They both think differently from the norm, and each other, and they both rock their respective worlds.  And things tilt massively when their worlds collide.

Director Jan Kounen directs the film sparingly, allowing images to tell the story more fully than words: an image of Stravinsky lost in thought at the piano while a metronome ticks unaccompanied says far more about his creative doldrums than a scene of frustrated acting out; a child on a still swing breaks the heart.  Mikkelson, very much an actor of coolness, betrays no emotion as his character finds himself adrift in two worlds that have nothing to do with his roots, and Anna Mouglalis' Chanel is a gliding sylph-like presence who economically portrays drama without betraying any of the planes of her face.  Words fail as these two artists concerned with the world of the sensuous act out a passion whose only previous outlet has been through their work.

It's an interesting study of two cultural revolutionaries whose orbits cross, lending a brief, propulsive energy to both, and whose gravity then extends shock-waves beyong, tilting our world.

"Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky" is a Matinee.

   * That would be Pauline Kael's fatuous statement that the unveiling of Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris" "altered the face of an art-form," comparing it to the riotous "Rite of Spring" opening.  If Ms. Kael had done some research, she might have mentioned that "The Rules of the Game" provoked a more similar reaction (Oh, you sensitive French!) or the premiere of "2001: A Space Odyssey" where walk-outs were prevalent—Rock Hudson huffed up the aisle yelling, "Will someone explain to me what this movie is about?"  It's about 2 1/2 hours, "Rock."  Will that do for ya?

** Mouglalis' work is unusually well-informed; since 2002, she has been one of the model faces for Chanel.

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