Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is an odd case of a tale, at least as it is recounted in this film, that may have been best left as a historical footnote, or better yet a historical rumor which this is.The set up is certainly one that is loaded with promise. The film begins with the then controversial premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. After which his fame and fortune topple and seven years later he was living hand-to-mouth in a hotel with his wife being seriously ill. Chanel who admires his work offers him and his family residence in her country home. This leads to an affair and that’s about the apex of the film.
The beginning of the film where in we see not only a hint of their attraction between Chanel and Stravinsky but also the fiasco that is the opening of his show in 1913 is nothing short of riveting. However, making a compelling first act is not the difficulty it’s the other two that often present the challenge. This three-pronged beginning is worth noting though. First, there is the pre-show where we see not only him and Chanel but also his pre-show jitters and an intimation of what his family life is like. Second, there is the chronicling of what the show itself was like which is quite something because listening to the music with modern ears it’s difficult to see what is so offensive. The music is wonderful but ahead of its time and thus receives a negative reaction. The last part of the opening is also compelling as you see opposite sides of the then failed symphonic ballet pointing fingers at each other. You have Nijinsky blaming Stavinsky and vice versa with Diaghilev trying to play mediator.
The positive effect that the move to Chanel’s has on Stravinsky’s work is obvious. He is able to compose. The difficulty the film ends up having is in the conveyance of the affair. To be just it doesn’t seem to be unrealistic but that’s where the issues come in. It is possibly too realistic for there to be sustainable drama and conflict that is truly compelling.
The affair begins and they are secretive about it but of course they are discovered, not only do Chanel’s friends suspect, as one scene illustrates, but Stravinsky’s wife and oldest son find out. Not that things need to blow up into melodrama but not enough does happen. Stravinsky’s wife takes it for as long as she can. She confronts both her husband and Chanel but in very subdued ways not making any overt threats or fuss. Again realistic for period but not necessarily making for the best drama.
Also you have an issue in that the two protagonists are quite similar in many ways. They are both driven to succeed in their profession and both consider themselves to be instinctual artists. They are demanding and not very open but physically passionate. When you have two characters who do not wear their hearts on the sleeves you need more incisive, perhaps even intrusive, filmmaking than you get in this film. It is all surface, glimpses beneath are few and far between and the water is murky.
Though you do get interesting time cuts which allow you to see the two in their old age hearkening back to their tryst it doesn’t stir up much emotion because the dénouement in this film seems massive. Chanel and Stravinsky fight, essentially ending their affair but he has work to finish and stays until he does. She attends his opening and applauds as people now appreciate his work. However, their relationship is over and we know it. We also know they will not fight for it. Similarly, Stravinsky’s wife really doesn’t fight for him to come back but hopes that he will.
It is unseen but he does go back and there is another failing. You have here a triangle with no real tug and pull. He is never truly torn, we assume he will return to his wife who doesn’t struggle to get him back so aside from seeing the great work both he and Chanel create by the fact that they are mutual muses what else is the tale really telling aside from an interesting footnote?
At one point Stravinsky’s wife cites the effect of the affair on the children but we don’t see it. We take her word for it. On occasion we get a glimpse into how she feels but not enough and the fact of the matter is how she feels isn’t that unique either. She loves him, wants success for him, wants him for only her but knows she can only push him so far.
Whether through adding more points-of-view or perhaps exaggerating historical facts or hearsay something needed to be done to up the ante in this film because all through the film there just wasn’t enough conflict and the outcome of the tale was ultimately a bit too predictable.
Some good acting and interesting cinematography is ultimately wasted in service to a script that seems to never want to, and never does, go for the jugular.