Based on a novel of the same name by British author Chris Greenhalgh, this film by Dutch director Jan Kounen lavishly envisions the extra-marital affair between the famous Russian composer and French designer and perfumer.
The film opens with the 1913 première, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, of the composer’s ballet The Rite of Spring, a work whose innovative, dissonant tones were so foreign to ears trained on canonical Romantic works that they sparked rioting and protests among the audience, many of whom walked out in disgust. (Those who stayed, by the film’s account, revelled in the spectacular aural revolution unfurling before them.)
Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel was in attendance and met Stravinsky for the first time that evening. Seven years later—the year she would invent her famous Chanel № 5 perfume—she invited Stravinsky and his family, including his sickly wife, to stay at her country villa so his wife could recuperate and he could work, uninterrupted, on his compositions.
A romance blossoms between the two which is unfortunately elaborated upon in numerous ludicrously-shot sex scenes which seem like they belong in a vaguely autistic late-’80s porn film, or maybe as background attractions in a Lady Gaga video.
Compounding the slightly queasy feeling given off by those patently unnecessary scenes is the film’s bizarre ending, where the director seems to have lost almost all control over the film as it veers into 2001 territory and older versions of the characters—requiring a large amount of ageing makeup and grey hair dye on the actors—are seen in flash-forward.
The key performances, from Mads Mikkelsen (Flammen & Citronen, Quantum of Solace) and Anna Mouglalis (the forthcoming Gainsbourg: la vie héroïque, a biopic of the smarmy chanteur) are marvellous, and the music, as would be expected, is wonderful: the Stravinsky in the film is a recording of the Berlin Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle, and Gabriel Yared’s ornate, simple score is perfectly employed.
The film sees director Kounen out of his comfort zone, and it shows. His previous films, the hyper-colourful French farce 99 Francs (2007) which is an attack on the advertising industry from the inside out; the fantasy western Blueberry (2004), and the violent crime thriller Dobermann (1997), though fairly well-made and arguably the work of a visionary filmmaker, have not met with much success.
This foray into a more understated, artistic sensibility is interesting if only for the faults and missteps it reveals—Kounen seems to almost willingly admit to shortcomings in the script and elsewhere (the thinness of the story is very noticeable across nearly two hours) and is a valiant attempt by the director at trying to cross into uncharted territory. Still, this is less cloistered and stuffy than Coco avant Chanel, Anne Fontaine’s recent biopic of the designer’s early years.