Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky opens on the night of 1913 when the Russian composer (Mads Mikkelsen) debuts The Rite of Spring at Paris’ Champs-Elysses Theater. The A-list audience, among them fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (Anna Mouglais), gathers with excitement. Backstage, Igor paces nervously while the conductor goes over bits of business with his musicians, and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky instructs his dancers on final details. The anticipation builds. Peering at the audience from behind the curtain, a producer brags “They won’t know what hit them.”
When the performance begins, all hell breaks loose. Then the audience, unsure of how to respond to the radically modern work, begins to grumble. There are scattered boos and walk-outs. The hissing and insults — “What a din! Go back to Russia!” — grow louder. Igor leaves his seat so he can witness the crowd’s revolt from the wings. Nijinsky starts yelling the count to his dancers, who can no longer hear the orchestra. The house lights come up; the cops are called.
And from her seat, with chaos erupting around her, Coco smiles in subtle amusement, then lingers backstage, hoping to meet Igor. That bravura opening sequence runs 20 minutes: The rest of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, directed by Jan Kounen with minimal dialogue, eloquent visuals and magnetic performances, takes place in 1920, when the cash-poor Igor, his ill wife Catherine (Elena Morozova) and their children have been displaced by the Russian Revolution and are living in a squalid Paris hotel room.
Coco and Igor are introduced at a party, and the attraction is instantly obvious; she invites him and his family to stay at her expansive villa in the country, where he can work on his music. At first, the Stravinskys are overwhelmed by the wealth and opulence of the place (its décor is entirely patterned in black and white, like Chanel’s clothes). But they soon grow to love the day-to-day life of the rich and famous.
Gradually, too, the attraction between Coco and Igor grows in full view of Catherine, who knows there is no way she can compete with the designer’s glamorous beauty and charm. Irrevocably, the artists begin a torrid sexual affair. But after a while, Coco demands more from Igor than just sex. She wants to spend a night on the town with him, to dine and have drinks afterward, but although Igor’s love for his wife has clearly dwindled, he’s not able to divorce her and commit to Coco.
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is filled with fascinating details, such as the stern, drill-sergeant manner in which Coco ran her Paris shop or the laborious process of creating her famous Chanel No. 5 (“Hundreds of flowers are needed to create a single drop!” a chemist tells her). Although the sex scenes are explicit, the movie also uses grace and suggestion. Before their affair has begun, as Igor is teaching Coco how to play the piano, their hands almost — but not quite — touch on the keyboard, and the suspense is underplayed but grueling. Later, when the relationship sours (“I won’t be your mistress,” Coco says), and Igor grabs her by the neck and tries to kiss her by force, the brief struggle is loaded with sexual violence.
Unlike last year’s Coco Before Chanel, in which Audrey Tautou played a warmer, kinder spirit, Mouglais presents her character as steely and unbending, a woman who has built her empire on her terms and refuses to abdicate the slightest control on her life. She has a cold heat. She doesn’t seem to look at people so much as to regard them with unspoken superiority — and her generosity always comes off as calculated (Coco regales Catherine with gifts simply as a way to buy her tolerance at having her husband stolen).
Mikkelsen plays Igor as tortured, frustrated by the lack of appreciation the world has for his art and uncontrollably drawn to a beautiful, imperial woman. They are unusually chilly, detached protagonists in a story about carnal heat and lust — one of the many details that distinguish Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky as more than just another historical romance.
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Anna Mouglais, Elena Morozova, Natacha Lindinger.
Director: Jan Kounen.
Screenwriter: Chris Greenhalgh. Based on his novel.
Producers: Claude Ossard, Chris Bolzi.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 120 minutes. In French, Russian and English with English subtitles. Sexual situations, nudity, adult themes.