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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky

Kounen’s study of seduction, infidelity, obsession and guilt

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Coco is already the rebel girl in the opening scene of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky as she cuts open her confining corset with scissors and then daringly smokes a cigarette. The year is 1913, and culture buffs will know what’s coming when she boards a taxi for a Paris concert hall. She will witness the notorious debut of Stravinsky’s The Rite ofSpring, a ballet that caused a riot among the silk-suited audience that eventually led to police intervention.

French director Jan Kounen restages the event with great emotional accuracy. The Russian composer’s music sounded savage and rhythmic to Western ears and Diaghilev’s dancers hurled a shamanistic rite into the face of polite society. It’s as if a rock concert had erupted in the afterglow of the Victorian age. Coco sits spellbound, wondering about the man who wrote such music.

Based on the novel by Chris Greenhalgh, whose plot was drawn from rumors of an affair between the fashion designer and the composer, CC & IS is a fascinating recreation of a time and place as well as study in seduction, infidelity, obsession and guilt. Most of the story unfolds after 1920, when Coco (Anna Mouglalis) is finally introduced to Igor (Mads Mikkelsen). By that time she is at the top of her field as the inventor of the little black dress, and he is in squalid exile with his family from a Russia that fell to the Bolsheviks. She offers to shelter the Stravinskys in her country chateau; a proud man, he reluctantly accepts. They appraise each other with careful glances. Eventually, he sinks into the graceful folds of her body, grateful for her attention and a slave to his desire.

Mouglalis gives a memorably nuanced performance as Coco, capturing her erotic allure, independent nature and strict regime as a businesswoman. As Igor, Mikkelsen is a photo of the composer come to life, stoic, intimidating and slightly Oriental in visage. His wife, Katia, had always been his emotional constant, his helper and critic, yet his heart had gone cold from years of family life. He finds Coco challenging, exciting, inspiring.

The brilliance of CC & IS has less to do with the lavish setting than its command of the cinematic medium. When Igor loses a game of chess to his adolescent son, we know it’s because he’s thinking of Coco. When Katia hears Igor’s piano fall silent, her cloudy expression says she knows it’s because Coco has put her arms around him. We don’t need long blocks of dialogue to explain the emotions of the characters. We can see it on their faces.

As for The Rite of Spring, what’s remarkable a century after its debut—in a time when cultural advancement means the latest gadget at the Apple store—is that people cared enough about music and dance to start a riot.

Opens July 9 at the Downer Theatre.