Sunday, 29 August 2010

In with a bang; out with a whimper


What is it about Parisians and premières? Here we are in the most sophisticated city in the world with some of the most sophisticated people in the world. But judging by some famous past examples, judging by their reaction to innovation, they like their art to be ‘just so’ – a literary reference which Kipling enthusiasts will understand –rather than radically different. In 1861 they gave Wagner’s Tannhäuser a hostile reception because of some innovations in structure and presentation, nothing, really, compared with the way in which they greeted Stravinsky’s incomparable Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) when it opened in the city in May, 1913.

It is this, one of the most famous riots in musical history, that acts as an overture, and what an overture, to Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, a biopic, of sorts, directed by Jan Kounen, telling of the alleged love affair between two of the great icons of twentieth century culture, one of smells, the other of sounds! It stars Anna Mouglalis as a coolly impressive Coco Chanel and Mads Mikkelsen as a coldly unimpressive Stravinsky. And then there is Elena Morozova as Stravinsky’s wife Catherine, not a bad performance of a doe-like traditionalist crushed between two egos.

To begin with I must say I absolutely adored Mouglalis in the role of Chanel, the great couturier. She was chic, full of poise and elegance, as calmly stylish as her sumptuous art deco mansion, dominated by a design scheme in black and white. The movie itself is an art deco dream, in visual terms as sexy as it is possible to get. It’s a work of pictorial art framing a rather lifeless story, one lacking in true human warmth. It’s a tale, if you like, of two icebergs passing in the night.

I’m getting ahead of things here. As I say, the movie overtures with the 1913 riot in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, where the audience is confronted by pagan, pulsating music accompanying pagan, pulsating dance. It’s beyond the comprehension of most; it’s seemingly not beyond the comprehension of Coco, who sits detached and impressed among the outraged bourgeoisie. Her subsequent attempt to meet the artist is spurned, isolated, as he is, in a fury of anger and dejection.

Now we fast forward to 1920, the intervening war and upheaval conveyed, I have to say, by a not very satisfactory montage. Coco, recovering from the death of her English lover, Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, at last secures an introduction to Stravinsky. Having left Russia following the Revolution, he is living in impoverished French exile with his wife and children. Coco offers them the hospitality of her villa outside Paris.

Now begins the main movement of the piece, but what a disappointment it is after the thrilling, orgasmic overture. Well, yes, it’s a love affair, one with orgasmic moments, but oddly enough there is hardly a trace of real passion. I can’t be sure if this was Kounen’s intention, but Coco and Stravinsky seem as emotionally uninvolved as they are physically involved; as creative in their individual enterprises as they are uncreative in love. As I say, they came across to me like two great icebergs, an odd counter-point to the passionate score, with continual references to The Rite of Spring, pagan, visceral and doom-laden. He composes; she presides over the distillation of Chanel No. 5; they have sex in between, the composer’s tubercular wife increasingly irrelevant in the background, a reminder of more traditional, less revolutionary values of faith in religion and fidelity in marriage.

That’s about it, really: the music is lavish, the cinematography is seductive, the fashions gorgeous, the settings impressive, the attitudes perfect…but there is no magic, there is no chemistry, as is said, between the two artists.

Impressive as it is Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky never really pushes below the surface. The elements are there, the elements of a sublime story, of a sublime composition, but Kounen, in the role of a conductor, simply fails to pull them together. In the end his direction is as starchy as the movie’s overly formal title (why not simply Coco and Igor?) As a result the movie is both beautiful…and boring. It’s as stylish as an advert for Chanel No. 5, wonderfully elegant and tiresomely superficial. I wanted so much more; I wanted to see the overture continue, the excitement continue. Instead the whole thing was just…well, let me just say that it was climaxes in the midst of an anti-climax!

Touching on climaxes the movie came in with a bang and ended with a whimper, a wholly artificial cliché of old Igor and old Coco looking back, but back to what I still can’t be sure; can’t be sure of their motives, can’t be sure of their feelings, can’t be sure of them. Perhaps I’m being harder than I intended, for there was much to enjoy. On so many levels it’s a good movie. The disappointment for me is that with a little more imagination, a little more understanding, a little more humanity it could have been a great one.

26 comments:

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  3. Oh, gosh, I went to a concert in Paris a few years ago, a performance of Beethoven's Ninth in one of the beautiful old churches. The whole thing was a total disaster! I must tell you about it sometime. :-))

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  5. It was a local orchestra, not terribly good, but that was far from being the worst part!

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  7. As I say the whole thing was just so surreal, the sort of thing possibly only the French could manage. It was September and a local cultural festival was being held in the Latin Quarter. We only discovered this when we visited the Église St-Etienne-du-Mont, where tickets were being sold for a performance of the Ninth that same evening. So, we thought, why not, another chance to see this beautiful church. I should say the performance itself was, well, basic; it wasn’t even a full orchestra.

    But the thing is the people organising the concert had clearly made no attempt to determine the church’s capacity, selling tickets, come one, come all. When we arrived there was a terrible crush which we had to fight through (I’m very good with my elbows!) Once in the doors were closed with some difficulty. For about ten minutes after all one could hear was banging on the doors, accompanied by rhythmic shouts Ovure la porte! Ouvre la porte! In retrospect it was just so funny, but the potential for real danger was there. The place was crammed and we had to stand throughout.

    So, on we go. During the slight pause in the middle of the Ode to Joy, half the audience started clapping, clearly having never heard the piece and not having the first clue about music. This outraged the other half! Yes, a night to remember.

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  11. Adam, if a man had stood up with a harmonica and started to belt out Beethoven you would have had to endure it. There was simply no possiblity of egress! Still, the church is beautiful.

    I've never been to Leeds. :-)

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  13. I should be slightly ashamed to admit this but I could tell you more about New York or San Fransico than parts of my own country. Puting Wales and Scotland to one side, there are so many places in the North I've never been too. In fact the only city I've visited north of a line from Bristol to Norwich is York. Oh, my. :-)

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  15. Sorry, I've also been to Durham (how could I forget Durham?). Some of my close friends attended the university.

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  19. I'll have a look, Adam, when I've finished catching up.

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  21. How do I get to comment on your posts ana?

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  22. Sorry Ana that was a test, took some working out for me being computer illiterate.

    I wanted to say that I read your review of Coco and will go to see it asp, will remember it's just a film.

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  23. Rosie, a very warm welcome to the land of the Imp. :-) Anyway, you managed to work things out! You must let me know what you think when you've seen the movie.

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