Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is a 2009 French film directed by Jan Kounen, starring Anna Mouglalis as French couturier Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel (1883–1971) and Mads Mikkelsen as Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971). Based on the novel Coco & Igor by Chris Greenhalgh, this movie tells the story of a reputed affair that took place in 1920.
The plot is fairly simple: In 1913, Coco Chanel attended the premier of The Rite of Spring: Pictures from Pagan Russia at Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris. Stravinsky composed the music. Nicholas Roerich painted the sets and designed the costumes. And Vaslav Nijinsky was choreographer. The ballet represented a human sacrifice in pagan Russia to gain the favor of the god of spring. The music’s complex rhythms, innovative tonality, unusual orchestration, and barbaric, brutal emotional power are challenging even today. In 1913, The Rite caused a riot. The recreation of the premier of The Rite of Spring was the main reason I went to this movie, and it did not disappoint.
In 1920, Stravinsky and his family are living in poverty as exiles from the Bolshevik Revolution. Chanel, who is in mourning for her lover Arthur Capel, meets Stravinsky again. A friendship develops, and she invites him to stay at her villa outside of Paris, where he could compose, his wife Catherine, who suffered from tuberculosis, could convalesce, and his four children could enjoy fresh air and sunshine. Stravinsky accepts her offer.
Stravinsky settles in, but there is an air of sexual tension that finally explodes into an affair. While the affair is going on, Chanel works with perfumer Ernest Beaux to create Chanel No. 5.
Stravinsky’s wife grows suspicious and finally takes the children to Switzerland. Torn between Coco and his family, Stravinsky finally breaks off the affair.
Even though their affair is over, Chanel still serves as an anonymous patron for Stravinsky’s art, paying for a revival of The Rite of Spring to an audience that has finally caught up to Stravinsky’s music and is much more receptive.
The movie ends with a poetic fizzle in 1971, the year both Chanel and Stravinsky died, portraying each of them in separate silent scenes, perhaps reminiscing about one another. Who can say?
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is a beautifully crafted, well-acted, but ultimately rather empty film. It is a must-see movie only if one admires Chanel or Stravinsky or both and wishes to see their worlds in 1913 and 1920 reconstructed.
That was enough for me. I like both Stravinsky and Chanel, so I found this movie worthwhile. They were both highly talented individuals in their own rights, but they also interest me because they combined avant-garde aesthetics with archaic, conservative, even reactionary tastes and convictions.
The aesthetics of The Rite of Spring have meaningful parallels with Italian futurism and Guillaume Faye’s Archeofuturism. The same can even be said of Chanel’s menswear inspired fashions, which were designed for mobility and comfort in an age of automobiles and aviatrixes, yet wedded these functions to the beauty of classical and traditional forms.
Stravinsky’s early music is so uncompromisingly avant-garde that many people just assume that he was leftist and a Jew. But Stravinsky was a devout Russian Orthodox Christian and patriot who had no illusions about what was being done in Russia and by whom. He was also a devoted family man (albeit one with a reputation for philandering).
(It took me many years to “grow into” an appreciation of Stravinsky, but you owe it to yourself to try. Begin with The Rite of Spring. There are many recordings, but I particularly recommend the Pierre Boulez/Cleveland Orchestra recording on Deutsche Grammophone, which also contains the ballet Petrouchka. Stravinsky’s later “neo-classical” works long struck me as abstract and emotionally repressed, with a false, superficial geniality. His Violin Concerto, however, is a work of great beauty and genuine passion. I recommend the Deutsche Grammophone recording by Anne-Sophie von Mutter. For the price of both of these recordings, one can get Stravinsky conducting these works himself — along with 20 more discs of self-conducted works — in Sony’s boxed set Works of Igor Stravinsky — surely one of the great bargains in the history of recorded music!)
The child of illiterate French proles, Chanel began as a seamstress and hat maker and rose through her talents as a designer and shrewd businesswoman to become a famous (and immensely rich) arbiter of taste. She was named one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century — the only designer in the bunch.
The movie I would really love to see about Chanel would begin in 1925, when she became friends with Vera Bate Lombardi, a reputed illegitimate daughter of the Marquess of Cambridge. Chanel turned Lombardi’s personal style into the famous “English look” and through her was introduced to many of Europe’s royal and aristocratic families.
In 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War, Chanel closed her shops. She said that it was not a time for fashion, but I think that she had more important business in mind.
During the German Occupation, she lived on at the Hôtel Ritz Paris, where in 1940 she began an affair with Hans Günther von Dincklage, a German officer and spy who was 13 years her junior (although she would only admit to three years difference).
Chanel was also linked to Walter Kutschmann, an SS man who was assigned to Paris in 1943. Chanel and Kutschmann are said to have made frequent trips together to Spain, and large sums of money passed between them.
Chanel’s most important Nazi contact, however, was SS-Brigadeführer Walter Schellenberg, who rose to become head of foreign intelligence in 1944. According to Wikipedia:
In 1943, after four years of professional separation, Chanel contacted Lombardi, who was living in Rome. She invited Lombardi to come to Paris and renew their work together. This was actually a cover for “Operation Modellhut,” an attempt by Nazi spymaster Walter Schellenberg to make secret contact with Lombardi’s relative Winston Churchill. When Lombardi refused, she was arrested as a British spy by the Gestapo.
The aim of Operation Modellhut was to bring about a negotiated end to the war. If it had succeeded, Coco Chanel might have been instrumental in saving millions of lives, and we would probably be living in a very different world.
Chanel maintained her friendship with Schellenberg after the war. She even paid for his funeral when he died in Turin of cancer in 1952.
After the war, Chanel was charged as a collaborator, but she was mysteriously released. It is rumored that the British Royal family intervened on her behalf. In 1945, Chanel moved to Switzerland joining Dincklage—they remained together until 1950, her longest relationship. She returned to Paris only in 1954, when she re-launched her fashion career.
The French panned her first collection, but in England and America, she was bigger than ever. And she never apologized, never explained.