Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Coco and Igor
Jan Kouken, director
Chris Greenhalgh, script, based on his book
Starring: Anna Mouglalis (Coco Chanel), Mads Mikkelsen (Igor Stravinsky), Yelena Morozova (Katarina Stravinskaya), Natacha Lindinger (Misia Sert), Grigori Manukov (Sergey Diagilev)
They met in Paris in 1920, the brilliant fashion designer and the visionary composer. The Great War was over and so was the hide-bound morality that had enveloped the world before the fighting began. Replacing it all was modernism. And democracy. And, at least in Berlin and Paris and New York, a new appreciation of women.
Coco Chanel was an exemplar of the new Woman. She was chic, resolute, demanding—and by 1920, famous, admired and notoriously difficult. Coco had made a fortune as a designer and was looking for ways to extend her aesthetic empire. It was, after all, the only empire worth having, after the crushing defeats of the Ottomans, the Prussians, the Russians, the Austrians and the Hungarians.
Igor Stravinsky had shattered the world of classical music just as assuredly as Chanel had demolished the accepted practices of fashion. His Rite of Spring, with its propulsive rhythms, dissonance and polytonalities, was a cause célèbre when it premiered in Paris in 1913. The audience nearly rioted during the first performance of his musical score to Nijinsky’s exciting “neo-primitive” ballet.
By 1920, Stravinsky was as much a legend as Chanel but not in her league when it came to wealth. In fact, he was broke, his family’s fortune having been seized by the Soviets.
When they met, Coco offered Igor a place to live—her mansion outside of Paris. There, he could compose while his children played and his wife Katarina would recover from her illness (which was likely tuberculosis). But these two revolutionaries were attracted to each other. Inevitably, an affair began.
Coco and Igor traces that affair during a summer in which Stravinsky worked on new compositions (in what became known as his “classical style”) and Chanel invented the perfume “number 5.” Beautifully directed, with an immaculate sense of design, the film evokes the affair between these two artists quite well. But despite a masterful performance by Mads Mikkelsen as Igor and a very good one by Anna Mouglalis as Coco, this is an emotionally cold movie.
We never care about the lovers. Certainly, we understand why they’re attracted to each other but the whole exercise feels faintly academic. Perhaps that’s the way it was; certainly, their 1920 interlude neither helped nor hurt the reputation of Chanel or Stravinsky.
Each went on to great careers, which are neatly captured in the film’s coda. Coco and Igor is a beautiful film to watch, filled with wonderful music by Stravinsky—but to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, “there’s no passion there.” And without passion, there’s nothing to root for, or against.
Coco and Igor is worth seeing in the cinema if you love the 1920s, Chanel, modernism or Stravinsky. If not, well, there’s always the DVD option.