Emotionally vacuous pic is like a pair of designer pants that look great but don't fit.
As its title promises, Gallic bio-drama “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky” delivers an impressive combo of sights and sounds in its depiction of the brief, tumultuous affair the two artists had in the early 1920s. However, on a dramatic level, Dutch-born helmer Jan Kounen’s hyper-stylized, emotionally vacuous film is like a pair of designer pants that look great but don’t fit, or a rare vinyl recording that keeps skipping at the best parts. Coming in the wake of the more genuine “Coco Before Chanel,” Cannes closer should offer fewer returns for Sony Classics, which acquired both titles for U.S. release.
Kicking off where Anne Fontaine’s film left off, but focusing on an even shorter timeframe during which Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) became Stravinsky’s (Mads Mikkelsen) artistic benefactor as well as his lover, pic offers a darker second chapter to the designer’s long biography. All that’s missing to complete the trilogy is a controversial account of her affair with an SS officer and ties to the Nazi regime (“Coco & Hitler,” anyone?), a fairly important event that both films tactfully ignore.
What’s problematic about Kounen’s script (written in collaboration with Chris Greenhalgh, whose book “Coco & Igor” was the basis for the movie) is that by limiting events to the affair but never providing much in terms of background, development or meaningful dialogue, the film makes it difficult to invest in all the goings-on in and out of the bedroom. The fact that both characters (but especially Chanel) are depicted as first-rate jerks who like to belittle their friends and colleagues doesn’t make caring about them any easier.
The film nonetheless kicks off with a promising, tour-de-force sequence set during the 1913 Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s legendary modernist ballet, “Le Sacre du printemps,” which is considered one of the great artistic scandales of the 20th century. Captured in swooping, chiaroscuro crane shots by d.p. David Ungaro and niftily cut together by editor Anny Danche, the coverage glides from backstage to stage to the increasingly rowdy audience, until the production finishes with the lights on and lots of unhappy customers.
Chanel is glimpsed admiring the hijinks from her seat, and the action soon cuts to seven years later, when she runs into Stravinsky at a flapper party and proposes to set him up at her country estate for financial reasons, though her true intentions seem rather obvious. The hiccup is that the musician also has four pleasant children nd a loving, ailing wife, Catherine (Elena Morozova), who, like the audience, spots the affair coming like a 10-ton truck.
When that moment arrives, and occupies the latter two-thirds of the movie, the narrative grows both repetitive and conventional, oscillating between sex scenes, jealous-wife scenes and uninspired scenes in which an “inspired” Stravinsky composes his “Symphonies for Wind Instruments” and “Five Easy Pieces” and Chanel develops her infamous No. 5 perfume. While the two never have much to discuss, their lovemaking is handled with much gloss and little inventiveness, especially in a scene that has them doing it, uh, on the composer’s piano bench.
Given very little to work with beyond visual cues, the thesps function like powerful eye candy with no distinctive flavor. Mouglalis (“Nightcap”), an actual Chanel model since 2002, portrays the designer (perhaps accurately) as fashion’s first queen of mean, but overdoes her scowl to annoying effect. Mikkelsen (“Casino Royale”), who looks here like a younger, beefed-up Christopher Walken, gives Stravinsky an imposing physical presence that makes it hard to believe he’s a musical genius.
Despite his dramatic failings, Kounen (“99 Francs,” “Doberman”) does provide plenty of robust visuals that are set to both the composer’s awesome oeuvre and to strong additional music by Gabriel Yared. Handsome production design by Marie-Helene Sulmoni includes somber art-deco interiors that convey the film’s sense of stylized claustrophobia.