Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky - Couturière and Composer's love affair looks chic but lacks heart

Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky

Fashion designer Coco Chanel took centre stage in last year’s lavish biopic about her early career, Coco Before Chanel. She has to share equal billing with composer Igor Stravinsky, however, in the no-less sumptuous period romance, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky.

Chanel and Stravinsky are supposed to have enjoyed a brief affair in 1920 – the year that her first perfume, Chanel No. 5, was created – but the actual details of their amour have been embroidered by British screenwriter Chris Greenhalgh from his own fictional novel.

Coco definitely did attend the notorious first night of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the Nijinsky-choreographed ballet that provoked a near-riot on its debut in Paris in 1913. And she certainly acted as the composer’s patron after the First World War, offering him and his family the use of her elegant art deco villa, Bel Respiro, for several months in 1920.

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky - Mads Mikkelsen & Anna Mouglalis

"You are not an artist, you are a shopkeeper"

But the nature of Coco and Igor’s relationship remains speculation - which wouldn’t matter if it weren’t so drearily imagined in director Jan Kounen’s film. As portrayed here, the pair’s liaison is more of a meeting of egos than souls, and the fact that it is being carried out under the nose of Stravinsky’s ailing wife fails to add fervour or spice.

There’s the germ of something interesting in the collision of two creative geniuses, both of them revolutionaries in their respective fields. And there's also a certain piquancy in observing the way that the lovers have to negotiate their perceived differences in status.

In financial terms, Chanel, has the upper hand, of course; yet Stravinsky refuses to acknowledge her as his artistic equal: "You are not an artist, you are a shopkeeper," is his dismissal. After this put-down, the couple’s romance fizzles out, and so, sadly, does the film.

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky - Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) attends the scandalous opening night of The Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky - Anna Mouglalis & Mads Mikkelsen

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky - Mads Mikkelsen & Anna Mouglalis

"Icy hauteur and ruthless self-possession"

The passion that is missing (despite abundant sex scenes) from Coco and Igor’s love affair is present, however, in the film’s startling recreation of the Rite of Spring’s tumultuous opening night. Unfortunately, this episode comes right at the start of the movie, and nothing that follows has anything like the same excitement or energy.

I don’t blame the film’s leads. Former Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen fluently pulls off the feat of acting in French and Russian, and also bears a surprising resemblance to the young Stravinsky, albeit a taller and more handsome version than the original.

Anna Mouglalis would similarly tower over the real-life Coco, but she is every bit as chic and elegant. And whereas Audrey Tautou’s performance in Coco Before Chanel couldn’t entirely shake off memories of Amélie’s cuteness, Mouglalis (herself a Chanel model) fully embodies the designer’s icy hauteur and ruthless self-possession.

Released on Blu-ray & DVD on 22nd November.


Jason Best

A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.