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Film: Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky

June 9, 2010

Anna Mouglalis, Mads Mikkelsen, Elena Morozova. Directed by Jan Kounen (2009)

Before I saw the ad for this film I had barely considered the idea that Chanel & Stravinsky existed in the same universe. Although based on a fictionalized expansion of speculative rumours, the film creates an intriguing collision between the worlds of avant-garde art music and high fashion and design.

After a truly mezmerizing kaleidoscopic title sequence the film opens at the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s infamous Rite of Spring. Click on the link and leave it playing in the background perhaps, if you’ve never heard the piece (or forgotten it). To me it doesn’t seem too unlistenable, but then again I am the kind of guy who listens to Schoenberg for fun so maybe you think otherwise.

Anyway, the premiere infamously ended in something close to a riot, or at least as close to a riot as you can get from upper-class music snobs. In the crowd, and not rioting, was (according to the film) Coco Chanel. After the war and the Russian revolution, Stravinsky was exiled to Paris, and was introduced to Chanel, who offered to let Stravinsky and his family stay in an amazingly decorated estate house instead of a hotel. As the film tells it, Chanel & Stravinsky embark on an affair while Stravinsky’s ill wife and several kids languish in the background.

I’m certainly no expert on design and fashion, and for that reason it is hard for me to judge how closely matched the two really were. Stravinsky was one of the true innovators of 20th Century music: he invented new approaches to music, and was strongly dedicated to the project of modernism. Chanel was, on the other hand, the only fashion designer in Time’s 100 most important people of the century. They both came to fame and influence at roughly the same time, in the 1920s, and both sparked revolutions in their respective fields. But as Stravinsky says to Chanel: “You are not an artist, you are just a shopkeeper”.

The style of the film begs to differ with this pronouncement. Throughout, the decor and fashion is lingered upon by the camera, and the sharp lines, vivid patterns, and contrasting rooms in the country house are constantly used as frames and dramatic symbols: a huge white double door with thick black outlines is Chanel’s entrance into Stravinsky’s private composition studio, where their intimacy begins. The shifts in the decor of Chanel’s own bedroom from dead black to raw, jarring white reflect her sharp, decisive changes in mood. The complicated patterning of wallpapers, chairs, and wrought iron, and even the modernist wineglasses, seem to intensify and reflect Stravinsky’s own explorations of classical forms. Needless to say, it all looks amazing, and is a striking reminder that only some of the 1920s have gone out of fashion.

The film is quite constrained in scope, focusing almost entirely on the two title characters, with occasional views of Stravinsky’s family and Chanel’s networking. Despite this neither of the characters is ever quite revealed. Chanel displays some hints of girlish naivete and fickleness behind her cold, authoritative persona, and in his interaction with her Stravinsky shows a similarly surprising lack of restraint and judgment. Generally, though, both characters are cold and refuse to express any emotion, with the exception of their inevitably stylish yet slightly passionless erotic encounters (“no kissing please, we’re screwing”) and Stravinsky’s expressionist music.

That quote from Stravinsky is the pivotal theme of the film to me. Chanel’s contribution to her field is portrayed as a matter of taste rather than invention, most vividly when she journeys to a chemist who is in the process of inventing the famous Chanel No.5 scent. The chemists create many different formulae which are all rejected until Chanel approves of one. But she did nothing to truly create the perfume. She seems like one to just pick what she likes from the world and refine it into her own label. In contrast, Stravinsky sits at the piano and works alone, creating masterpieces purely from his own fingers and mind.

This last point is rather disputable in the real world, due to the existence of such Stravinsky quotations as “lesser artists borrow, great artists steal” and “I haven’t understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it.” But leaving this aside, does fashion and design really have the same abstract emotional power as music undoubtedly does? Or is it all just a show, a good-looking, pretty, important show to be sure, but containing none of the true profundities of great art? In anther important scene Stravinsky explains that he always starts at the piano, not on paper, because he needs to feel the notes. Chanel replies that she never makes sketches either, she needs to feel the cloth. Stravinsky’s quietly dismissive reply is “I’m not sure they are really the same”.

Anyway back to the film. The love affair itself, with the morally upstanding but powerless wife vs. the bold new lover is rather unexciting. The major interest is in the way Chanel’s ceaseless quest for the new trend (“She even makes grief chic” remarks one character) leads her to first of all hear something exciting in Stravinsky’s music, and then to try to capture his character for her own. But she doesn’t quite get that for Stravinsky music is for him an artistic expression for its own sake, not to create trends or influence. Stravinsky’s wife understood the music and its importance, and even she could not penetrate his true thoughts.

Fittingly, the film is really all about style. One particular scene in which Stravinsky and the camera explore the amazing decor in a confused state while ominous music tells us that something is wrong very much underlines that in this film it is the design, the music, the visuals, the fashion, that carry the most powerful emotions. The wife has some quite powerfully bare emotional dialogue, but Stravinsky’s response is stone-faced, and so is the film’s treatment of it. The main characters are in comparison lifeless, bland, and limp, practically furniture themselves. The film does come close to turning design and style into expression, but it only proves its own point by creating a final feeling of hollowness and disconnectedness. So, Modernism as a rejection of romantic (and Romantic) emotional cliches, but also with the danger of the rejection of true emotions.

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