Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky

A gloriously shot but elegantly empty chamber piece

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Was there some burning desire in the public to see two stories about the iconoclastic designer Coco Chanel in the same year? Who can say? Was there a desperate need for two movies about track hero Steve Prefontaine? Such things remain a mystery, as does the true purpose of this gloriously shot but elegantly empty chamber piece. 

As with the earlier Coco Before Chanel, this film attempts to understand the sleek fashionista's artistry through the gauzy lens of fleeting romantic dalliance, in this case with fellow future-thinking provocateur Igor Stravinsky. The unlikely lovers meet at the disastrous 1913 premiere of Stravinsky's radical avant-garde ballet The Rite of Spring, where enraged French patrons just about ripped out the seats out of the Théâtre Des Champs élysées. Where others heard only atonal dissonance, the ever-progressive Chanel heard the exciting sounds of a kindred modern artist. While there is scant historical evidence of a fling, Chanel did eventually become a patron for the brooding Russian composer, and invited his entire family to come stay at her villa outside Paris in the spring of 1920. From here, the film, based on a 2002 novel, speculates that the dour musician and the predatory stylist had a torrid affair, right under the pale nose of his loyal, tubercular wife, effectively played by Yelena Morozova. All this hanky-panky coincides with the making of the immortal fragrance Chanel No. 5, which essentially consists of Coco sniffing vials in a chemistry lab until she picks a favorite, and snapping lines like, "I want to smell like a woman, not an orchid!" These scenes are no more illuminating of the creative process than the shots of Igor pounding the piano keys in rhythm to the many demons banging about in his skull. The tone is sterile overall, almost clinical, as the shark-like Coco closes in on her prey and takes what she needs. What exactly she is getting out of the deal is unclear. The sex is steamy, but it's joyless union, too cold and angular an arrangement to endure. A clunky flash-forward, where the elderly artists separately muse about their almost-love, is unconvincing. If they don't care about their affair, why should we?

Opens Friday, July 30, at the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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