In 1920 France, Coco Chanel carries on with married man Igor Stravinsky. Though the actors and the sets are gorgeous, says Kimberly Gadette, just how engaging is the story itself?
The good news about this subtitled film: for those of you who don't enjoy having to split concentration between the visual and the verbal, the eyeball undergoes a bare minimum of strain. The bad news: no one speaks. Well, hardly. The characters are so filled with furrowed-brow misery, sweet suffering and cool manipulation, that they can't be distracted with something as pedestrian as speech.
Per director/co-writer Jan Kounen: "This film contains few words. Much is conveyed through faces, costumes, objects and the layout of the shots. I worked on trying to use this language instead of the spoken word." Thanks, Mr. Kounen, be sure to let us know when your next art exhibition is passing through town. But as for these "moving pictures" that are meant to move us ... we're at a standstill. Crawling pictures, perhaps. Suitable for framing. On a wall.
Speaking of art, the opening is eye-catching, setting up high drama that we never experience again. After the credits unfurl over a whirling kaleidoscope of decorative Art Nouveau patterns, we're treated to two engaging scenes. Set in 1913 Paris, we meet a flirtatious Coco (Anna Mouglalis) cavorting with her lover, Boy Capel (Anatole Taubman). Smoking, laughing, she rips her corset to shreds because she can't breathe. Kounen uses this introductory scene to give us a smart look at the origins of the iconic fashion designer as she literally extricates the physically and sexually entrapped woman from the stifling societal bonds of the early 20th century.
The film then cuts to the factually-based scandal that occurred on May 29, 1913 at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées. A nervous Igor Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) waits in his dressing room minutes before introducing his cutting-edge masterpiece, "The Rite of Spring" to the cultural cognoscenti (staged by the up-and-coming Nijinsky for the Ballet Russe). Alone, he stares into a mirrored triptych – while three faces look back at him, this device will be repeated later in the film, when the image of the far more powerful Coco Chanel is reflected in eight separate panes.
Stravinsky's fears are well-founded. For a crowd accustomed to "Swan Lake," the discordant modernity of Stravinsky is met with outrage. Within minutes, the crowd erupts, yelling, throwing anything they can at the stage. The police force shows up to tame whatever is left of the unruly masses. It's a wonderful, albeit long, scene depicting the perfectly-coiffed, formally-attired upper class turning into a roiling sea of rioting pagans, far more uncivilized than the dancer pagans onstage. Amid the mayhem, the camera frequently closes in on a radiant female, still seated, highly amused by all the proceedings: one Coco Chanel.
And now, dear moviegoer, like the angry mob above, feel free to exit. The film doesn't get any better than this.
For the remainder of the two hours, we flash forward to 1920 France in which the extraordinarily successful Coco offers the use of her villa in Garches to Igor, who is barely surviving in a cramped hotel room with his consumptive wife and four young children. We will have to plod through nearly an hour of heated looks between the leads, as well as sad doe-eyed gazes from the wife (Elena Morozova's Katarina) before we see the lovers unite in a lukewarm passion. As a cumbersome side plot, seemingly added to reflect Coco's parallel artistry to Igor's, the designer works with perfumers in an attempt to create a scent that smells like a woman rather than a rose. Hence, the birth of Chanel No. 5.
And yet, there's a fascinating story barely explored beneath all the bloat. The fact that a 1920s business woman had the upper hand in an affair, unimpressed by her lover's celebrity, unfettered by the social mores of the day, might have been far more compelling if turned over to another filmmaker's vision.
While both Mikkelsen and Mouglalis invest their characters with strong credibility, the script doesn't allow for much emotional growth. Mikkelsen (best known to American audiences as Bond villain LeChiffre) is the appropriately tormented musician, infatuated with the lady of the house. But he's not an empathetic character; rather, he's excessively self-involved to the point of dismissing his own wife's suffering. When Katarina declares her love before departing from the suffocating confines of Coco's estate, he stares her down – and then closes the carriage door in her face.
As for Mouglalis (a one-time model for the house of Chanel), reminiscent of a young Ava Gardner, she affects the unimpeachable self-confidence of a superstar. But after the effervescent opening scene with her former lover, her performance is devoid of any spark. Even her eventual affair with Igor seems more of an annoyance than a pleasure.
However, the production design is flawless. The impeccable art deco of Coco's villa, the play of light reflecting the various seasons, the costumes, and Gabriel Yared's music, blending seamlessly with Stravinsky's, all contribute to a well-polished product.
But we seldom go to movies for the production values. With long airless scenes depicting the mute joylessness of two people who are far more in love with themselves than each other ... perhaps it would be best to return to that 1913 opening night. In order that we, too, might glean some satisfaction in throwing a tomato or two.
Rating on a scale of 5 Wrongs of Spring: 2
Release date: US= 11 June 2010 (ltd, wider release 9 July 2010); UK= tbd
Directed by: Jan Kounen
Screenplay by: Chris Greenhalgh, Carlo De Boutiny and Jan Kounen
Based on the novel "Coco & Igor" by: Chris Greenhalgh
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Anna Mouglalis, Elena Morozova, Grigori Manoukov, Anatole Taubman
Rating: US = R; UK = tbd
Running time: 118 minutes