Film Review: ‘Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky’

I’ve wanted to see Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky ever since it was given the coveted “last slot” at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. I was captivated immediately, since it starts with a recreation of a ballet performance that caused one of the most notable classical music riots in history: the 1913 Paris premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring: Pictures from Pagan Russia. The performance was collaboration between some of the most famous avant-garde artists of the day: Vaslav Nijinsky as choreographer, Nicholas Roerich as costume and set designer, and Sergei Diaghilev as producer.

The film is based on the novel Coco & Igor by Chris Greenhalgh (2002) and tells of a rumored affair between the two friends. Some of the story is true: Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel (played by Anna Mouglalis) did attend The Rite’s premiere and become captivated by the music of Stravinsky (played by Mads Mikkelsen). It’s true that Chanel let the composer and his family live at her villa outside of Paris. And she gave money to support the 1920 production of The Rite.

Photo: Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, c. 1920

But, the rest of the movie is largely the author’s imagination. Most film reviewers don’t know, but even the famous riot was largely engineered by Diaghilev, who gave free tickets to young bohemians and told them when to applaud and holler. Diaghilev later said the riot was exactly what he wanted, and the ballet didn’t cause much of a stir in later performances in London and Paris.

After the premiere scene, the film jumps forward to 1920. Stravinsky, his wife Catherine, and their four children are living in poverty in Paris, after fleeing their home country due to the Russian Revolution. After they move into Chanel’s house, the close contact between the couturière and composer results in an affair. Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is beautiful to watch, in part because of all the images of Chanel’s clothing and the black-and-white décor in her villa, Bel Respiro.

The film also presents a fascinating contrast between Stravinsky’s wife and mistress, and in doing so, contrasts traditional and modern roles for women. Catherine hangs up tapestries from her home country in Chanel’s modern house, and continues to dress in almost peasant-style clothing while just outside the fashion center of the world. Her Russian Orthodox family prays before dinner, and she is devoted to her children and to helping her husband with his work. She can’t figure out Chanel, except that she knows the affair is ruining her family and her health.

Meanwhile, Chanel is single, has no children, is dependent on no one for money or emotional support, and through her business has gained immense power. Her ruthless morals are required for her success in the world, and also are part of her style: She is dignified and restrained in almost every aspect of her manner and dress, and swears that no man will ever make her ill like Catherine.

The question this contrast brings to mind is: Does modern Chanel or traditional Catherine represent the best ideal for women? I think the answer lies in a combination of the virtues of both: maintaining a reverence and adherence to traditional customs and rites, combined with a modern self-determination to follow one’s dreams.

Image: Nicholas Roerich, scenery sketch for "The Rite of Spring," 1912

The Rite of Spring is the perfect showcase for such a debate, since it serves as a metaphor for the breakdown of traditional societies and the emergence of modernism. Stravinsky’s music incorporated folk melodies and primitive beats, the set designer was also a folklorist, and the ballet tells the story of an ancient sacrifice to the god of spring. Yet, the music and choreography were entirely modern and unfamiliar to the audience, causing the creators to be seen as revolutionary even today.

I agree with other reviewers that Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky fizzles out at the end, but the film should be lauded for paying homage to another important event in the history of dance: the recreation of The Rite’s original choreography (which was never documented). The ballet performance in the film would not have been possible but for a grant received by Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet in the late 1980s. The husband-and-wife team Millicent Hodson (a choreographer and dance historian) and Kenneth Archer (an art historian) went through countless sketches, paintings, reviews, and designs to recreate, as best as possible, the original choreography by Nijinsky. It's exhilarating to watch the film version, complete with the riotous audience, but the 1987 performance will allow you to see the entire ballet.

Click here to watch the Joffrey Ballet’s reconstruction of Stravinsky’s and Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring at The New Noblewoman.

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