There was a time when symphonic music could make an audience angry enough to riot. A time when a composer could be so far ahead of his time that the crowd, unable to adjust to his aesthetic, could stand up and boo the work. A time when others, more in tune to the composer’s offering, would loudly defend such a progressive work.
A time when people got all fancy when they went out to a concert.
Such a riot of sorts did break out when Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” premiered with the Ballets Russes. And that landmark moment in movie history promisingly launches 2010’s Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky.
Not settling for just showing what happened on stage, the movie dramatically takes us backstage as well, from the gnawing anticipation and mix of support and snippiness to the head-shaking aftermath.
The sequence works so well, in part, because it takes its time, allowing us to soak in the music while also sensing the growing tension. And it puts us in the mind of the groundbreaking composer without giving him many, if any, words.
The fact that he’s played by Mads Mikkelsen, dressing up between 2006’s Casino Royale and 2010’s Clash of the Titans, makes it even better. Able to show pride and concern without the aid of extended dialogue, Mikkelsen’s edge helps make Stravinsky interesting without being heroic.
Unfortunately, that artfully, compellingly constructed sequence happens in the first 15 minutes or so of the film.
It then leaps ahead to chronicle an insufferable, and purely speculative, affair between the composer and Coco Chanel, who invites the low-on-funds Stravinsky and his wife and kids to stay in her villa. What happens is about as fact-based as Shakespeare in Love. Chanel said the two did the bumpity-bump. Nobody else corroborated.
As with Shakespeare in Love, that lack of historical record should have given screenwriter Chris Greenhalgh (adapting his novel) plenty of room for creativity. But he offers little more than some sordid romping with a knowing Mrs. S in the house.
It’s not surprising – but it is disappointing – that the most interesting thing about Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky are the clothes and the music.
Side note: A movie should never have a title that feels like a placeholder while the marketing folks think of something.