You're going to have to forgive me for going all out in a film review, not something I normally do. I'm trying to get to grips with my brain again after several days of three-liner posts.
I'm probably not even the best person to give a measured a review of "Coco and Igor", starring Anna Mouglalis as Chanel and Mads Mikkelson as Stravinsky, that has had protracted limited release everywhere but did in fact close the Festival of Cannes in 2009. Actually, the amount of bias here is excruciating‚Ä¶ I'm a cheap consumer of all things Chanel – alas, not the clothes and shoes which are beyond my reach but of her life, through the several flimsy and not-so-flimsy biographies, the countless books and a fascination with not just her lasting aesthetic but with the person herself. The quote in the header isn't just there for fun.
Then there's Stravinsky. The first time I heard The Rite of Spring was at school through a fuzzy tape. I was frightened because I was only maybe 7 or 8 at the time and there was a lot of sudden movement and a sound that to me sounded discordant. Then when I saw Disney's Fantasia, adding dinosaurs and bubbling volcanos to the music only etched the music in my brain even deeper. Some further grappling with his work on the pia-pia-piano (hardcore lessons up till I was 18‚Ä¶) really made me realise how much of a revolutionary he was rhythmically.
So with this equal love for both subjects, only a train wreck of a set with hammy acting could have deterred me from the film. The film is adapted from a book by Chris Greenhalgh which focuses on a period in Coco Chanel's life where she encounters composer Igor Stravinsky. She invites him and increasingly sickly wife and his children to stay at her home Bel Respiro, enabling him to work in a quiet retreat. All the while, Chanel is developing her first fragrance No.5 (though this isn't the primary focus of the film). Chanel and Stravinsky begin an affair with each other, one that obviously doesn't last but the film gives the impression that it was a significant encounter.
The opening scene was actually what sealed the deal for me, because it starts with the premiere of The Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913. There's absolutely no exaggeration in the riot that the premiere of this radical departure from classical ballet caused. The piece was composed for Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes (excitement for the upcoming V&A exhibition!!!) and was choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky. As soon as the tribalistic dancers started their depiction of fertility rites, people started to boo and arguments broke out between the supporters and the people who just didn't understand it. It's hard to say whether it was the choreography or Stravinsky's score that was causing the fuss but nonetheless, people left in an outrage. The aesthetics of everything and the feeling of tumultuous chaos was pitch perfect for me.
It's weird for me to even think of The Rite of Spring as anything but a beautiful and complex masterpiece, and that people thought the polyrhythmic twists and turns was just "noise" is almost laughable. It didn't take long though for people to 'get it', a year later, the music was finally applauded and Stravinsky was carried through the streets on the shoulders of the crowd.
That strong opener confirmed that Stravinsky's music would play a key role in he film which again only made it all the more of an exhilarating experience especially in a film that is very light on dialogue and extremely languid in places. People may consider the pace of the film too slow but then again, the story itself is flimsy one that at its essence is based on rumour. The novel by Greenhalgh is really a drawn out historical fluff-novel that used facts to construct a mostly imagined narrative. Stravinsky and Chanel shared mutual friends and whilst Stravinsky did stay with her, who knows what the level of their involvement with each other was – was there real love between them that the novel purports it to be? Whilst the film had to ensure that an intense love affair was born, I think the meandering pace drew out their relationship with the music adding weight to it as well as balancing out with the moments of intensity.
Like Avant Chanel, the stylistic approach is such an important factor in a film where the subject is Coco Chanel, that that is also another role in the mix. The look of Bel Respiro in particular was key to making the house feel like an expensive but unfeeling retreat. Chanel's love of black and white and minimal decor made for a house that sucked the life out of Stravinsky's wife. And the clothes‚Ä¶ as well-documented, the film is sanctioned by Chanel as a company and so Karl Lagerfeld advised on the costumes as well as allowing them to see Coco Chanel's private wardrobe (eeeeeps‚Ä¶. !). That lithe and slightly brittle air of Coco Chanel was perfectly conveyed by Mouglalis I thought, and actually was the more mature and slightly more sensual progression of Tautou's turn as Coco.
I'll let Anna Mouglalis herself do the talking about her knowledgeable relationship with Chanel, person and house and her own intentions with the role…Was there an increased pressure on you when taking on this part with your role as muse/ambassador for Chanel?
Anna Mouglalis: There was more enthusiasm than pressure I would say. The reason why people thought that I was a model rather than an actress was because I've been a muse/ambassador for Chanel. But the fact that it's Chanel bringing me back to a popular movie is a beautiful smile of life. I've been nourished by Chanel in both senses – it's given me a financial means to live for me and my family as well as food for my mind. It's great to be able to play this role and use my profession to do this.
How much preparation did you do for the role – obviously you knew a lot about the Chanel, the house, but how much work did you have to research on Chanel, the person?
Anna Mouglalis: For the Chanel house, it's very particular. They've always been connected to the life of Coco. For example, Chanel did a show in Shanghai recently and it was always a dream of Coco to go to China and she loved all things Chinese. So
I've been learning so many things over eight years in a totally free way and I've had an unconscious preparation for the role. I hadn't had a gift like that for any other role.
From the moment that I knew that I got the part, I started going through readings – I had only read two books on the life of Chanel, two biographies and some . There's a lot of them. Everybody who has met with Chanel for five minutes wrote a book about those five minutes! Some told me more about the writers than Chanel herself. She was such a complex character. She mystified her own life and mystified her past and childhood.
Until she became Coco Chanel, the period in which we're depicting her. Before that she kept changing the versions of her story. There's three official biographies Chanel but all three stories are different and though they were official because she sanctioned them at the time of writing, in the end, she refuted all of them. So there's a lot of openness for interpretation. You embody a real person but you still have to work on your imagination and it's always going to be an adaption. You have to go on your intuition and forget a lot of things.
Did you find it challenging working on a movie where everything was based on subtle movement and expression as opposed to dialogue?
Anna Mouglalis: The script at the beginning was very classic. Then the director for many reasons started to change the script and then were going a little blindly at times. The dialogue was reduced but we knew what we had to convey in the scenes – words or no words, it's the same really. Chanel was very known for her humour though. She was known to be tough and the few people I met that knew her said they were terrified. In order to balance that toughness, she was also very full of humour. That's one side of the character that the director didn't want to show in the film‚Ä¶
What did you think of Avant Chanel (film starring Audrey Tautou)?
Anna Mouglalis: We shot the two films at the same time. Our movie couldn't be called 'Chanel' as people thought there would be confusion. I was very curious to see it and I was one of the first ones to see it. I couldn't stand that people would say bad things about it. The crew on our movie would hear bad things about the other set as we were filming at the same time. For me it was the exact opposite. Really, if the first movie wasn't great, then why would people see the second one (laughs).
Why do you think there has been so much interest in depicting Chanel on film?
Anna Mouglalis: It probably started with the film La Vie En Rose. All the producers wanted to go for biopics as they thought it would be a good recipe. Chanel was a natural good subject as a monument of France, of luxury, of fashion. She embodied the free woman and it's so strange, for any producer/director it's exciting.
Were you familiar with the music of Stravinsky before working on the film?
Anna Mouglalis: I knew The Rite of Spring and I initially thought it was a difficult, inaccessible type of music. When I started to really listen to it – you have a sensation that you're listening to something familiar. That type of cinematic music that has a narrative to it is totally accepted now. Though it was so new and unexpected back then. As a man though, Stravinsky was a man of the 19th century. As an artist, he was revolutionary, as a man with his wife and children, he was traditional.
Chanel was called the exterminated angel of the 19th century. They met when she was in mourning for 'Boy' Capel and through the world of arts and music, she came back to life and she opened a window into another world.
I suppose the flaw that I think will ultimately turn the average audience off is the specific point depicted – looking at IMDB, someone said "so she had a roll in hay with Stravinsky – so what?". Well to that, I would say that the mere coming together of two such amazing personalities of the 20th century is a fascinating subject and each of them coming into their own, Stravinsky with his music and Chanel with the expansion of her brand (the making of No.5). Those looking for straight-up biopic (and I'm not sure this is classified as one anyway given that it is based on a mostly-imagined novel) will be disappointed too given that it is such a specific point conveyed in both of these people's lives. I liked that at times it was an interpretative essence of these historical figures that were depicted and the fact that they weren't striving for total realism. Like I said though, I suppose my judgement is clouded somewhat but then again… the type of people seeing this film are likely to have some sort of bias towards the subjects…