Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky

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Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ***½

From the kaleidoscopic credits sequence -- gorgeous but approaching the headache-inducing -- it's clear that we're in for some visual splendor. And Netherlands-born adapter (of Chris Greenhalgh's novel) and director Jan Kounen certainly delivers on that promise: Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is perhaps the most beautiful film of the year -- maybe several -- in terms of art direction, costumes and sets (including wallpaper and props). I am not being facetious: There is a lot be said for sheer beauty and taste regarding surroundings, particularly when all this is captured as stunningly as it is here (the widescreen cinematography is by David Ungaro).

If this were all the movie had to offer, it would still be enough for me to spend a couple of hours in its company and then watch it again. But there's actually a good deal more. Coco & Igor (let's reduce that title a bit) provides smart entertainment in a number of ways, while making a fine companion piece to the Anne Fontaine version, last year's Coco Before Chanel, and which gave us Coco's childhood and early adult years.

Kounen's movie begins almost where Fontaine's ends (if you leave out that fashion-show finale) -- with a sexual tryst between Chanel (the lovely Anna Mouglalis who, despite her beauty, looks even more like the actual Chanel than did Audrey Tautou) and "Boy Capel," once the latter has set her up in business, and immediately prior to his auto accident. Capel is played by Anatole Taubman, whom we see little of, but enough to know that the actor is physically similar to Mads Mikkelsen (who plays Igor), indicating that Coco has a preference for lean, dark, pale-skinned men.

Then, off goes Chanel to the premiere of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring." Ever since I was an adolescent, I have heard about this legendary performance, always wondering how it could have caused a riot. Well, now I know -- because Kounen (who also made the underseen Western Renegade) and his crew bring it to wonderful, in-the-moment life: the music, the dance (Nijinsky and Diaghilev!), the audience's response -- this provides the film with its don't-miss first 20 minutes.

Once the Coco/Igor romance gets started, the movie hits a number of other high notes, too. Interestingly, there is surprisingly little dialog throughout. In fact, this may be the first big-budget movie I've seen with so little verbiage to accompany its visuals. (A compatriot suggested to me that the director may not be so fluent in English and, though both can speak it, neither of its two stars might be that conversant in its subtleties, either.) Consequently the movie is practically all situation -- activity and visuals -- as though this would be enough to ensure its success. And for the most part it is.

There are a few choice verbal moments here, too: When Igor and family arrive, invited, at Chanel's estate and have a look around to discover that practically everything is black-and-white (see above), "You don't like color, Mademoiselle Chanel?" asks Madame Stravinsky. "As long as it's black," Coco replies. Along the way, between bouts of sex and remorse, we get to know Igor's wife Katia (played by the fine Elena Morozova), are privy to the creation of a certain now-famous perfume, and see Stravinsky labor to improve his "Rite."

By the finale, which of course is expected, we're left with an age-old rule that strikes me, at least, as quite similar to the one my high school and college gym coaches kept trying to get us guys -- who were understandably reluctant -- to live by: You're going to play the sport (or, in this case, compose the music) much better if you'll just abstain from sex until after the game (in this case, the performance). After her initial seduction, Mouglalis makes a surprising, if effective, coach (this woman's in love with "control") and Mikkelsen her reluctant, frustrated player. Her ploy works. So does the film.

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