"Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky": DVD, Blu-Ray Review

10/05/2010 Posted by Admin

"Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky"

DVD, Blu-Ray Review

Directed by Jan Kouken, Written by Chris Geenhalgh, 119 minutes.

By our guest blogger, Matthew Schimkowitz

Director Jan Kouken’s illustrious portrait of Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) and Igor Stravinsky’s (Mads Mikkelsen) affair is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s a beautifully shot and acted dramatization of a romance between two innovators; but on the other, it’s wildly uneven, favoring stylistic tendencies over authentic emotion. And while the actors’ admirable restraint provides the film with the necessary emotive force, it becomes the bare minimum when the story finally gets underway.

"Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky" tells the story of the romance between the titular characters in three movements. Beginning with their meeting at the premiere of Stravinsky’s controversial “The Rites of Spring.” It's a piece that not only inspires hatred in its audience, but also a then-struggling Coco Chanel.

Several years later, Chanel, now the owner of the successful Chanel fashion enterprise, approaches Stravinsky with an offer to work and compose at her extravagant French mansion. With a large, destitute family to care for, the composer agrees and moves there with his wife and children. There, under the quiet presence of Stravinsky’s sick wife, Katia (Yelena Morozova), Chanel and Stravinsky begin an affair that eventually would cost them everything as well as lead them to their greatest successes.

Within these three stages, Kouken attempts a lot, yet only moderately succeeds.  His staging of “The Rites of Spring,” however, is fantastic. The sounds and image are authentic and effective, giving the audience, who might be unfamiliar with the piece, perspective on its initial reaction and a chance to experience it for themselves. It’s a lengthy spectacle, though, taking up almost 40 minutes of the first act, and as soon as it ends, Kouken begins crafting his story, launching us seven years into the future.

Kouken spends the moments following “The Rites of Spring” bringing the audience up to speed through quick cuts and short scenes. Stravinsky takes a lot of time with “The Rites,” so Kouken and editor Anny Danché are wise to keep the succeeding expository scenes brief to get the affair underway.

There are a wealth of staggering images through "Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky" that begin at the opening credits, which play over a cascade of swirling colors and shapes. That very design motif frequently appears within the film itself, whether on the walls of Chanel’s beautiful French mansion or on the scarf that hangs from Katia’s neck, thus reminding the audience of her husband’s humble Russian heritage.

Kouken depends on these images to evoke feeling from his actors, while keeping his camera still. The frame lingers on the actors’ faces as they stand before rich tapestries of line and color, building significance through composition not performance.

Mikkelsen, Mouglalis and Morozova take time crafting their characters, and they do so with subtlety. Here, the slightest head turn, wince or swallow emote devastating events better than any violent outburst. Mikkelsen’s introspection can tell the world through a simple stare, while Mouglalis’ vindictive nature emerges with a simple turn of the head when Mikkelsen motions to kiss her. The cast’s discipline and dedication to the role is fantastic and carries the lack of plot.

Each of these elements give the film its tempo. Via quick cuts and cluttered frames, the director creates the illusion of action without any taking place. There is such passivity in the actors’ performances that without these additions, the movie would be unwatchable.

What really hurts the film, however, is its third act as the lack of action slows things to a crawl. It all feels a bit underwhelming when the romance goes sour, mainly because all the quick exposition in the second act never developed a strong connection between the title characters outside of artistic attraction and mutual respect.

Overall, "Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky" is a great exercise in style and restraint. Kouken is both extravagant and subtle, but by mixing these two ideals, he creates fragmentation rather than balance, rarely hitting the right beat after the incredible opening act. Nevertheless, the film does achieve a level of sophistication deserving of its subject matter, and even if it tends lose steam during the last hour, there’s still enough to look at to make it worth the time.

Grade: B-

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