Artistic genius lives somewhere between our world and the next. How else to explain Mozart, Michelangelo and Steinbeck stealing the madness from our existence and translating it into a new language of rhythm, order or composition?
Few cinematic efforts have captured the Neverland of genius, though many have tried; Lust for Life, Isadora and even Amadeus caught the edges of artists' lives, but seldom did they peer into the caverns of inspiration.
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky does not simply visit the title characters, two figures that helped define the 20th century. It lays bare their souls. History tells us that they knew each other and spent time in each other's company. And rumors whisper that they probably had an affair. But British poet Chris Greenhalgh takes enormous liberties in his novel and subsequent screenplay. And it would all be a scandalous lie if the movie weren't such a delicious treat.
The first 10 minutes are worth the price of admission. We're transported to 1913 Paris, where new emigre Stravinsky has penned a ground-breaking ballet with young choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky.
"Forget melody. Follow the rhythm," the conductor instructs his reluctant orchestra. "Forget Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Strauss. Forget everything you've heard before. Whatever happens, follow me."
"It's outrageous." "It's a din." "Go back to Russia," scream the elitist Parisians.
A near riot breaks out in the theater--a spectacle of abhorrent behavior. And thus we are witness to the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps, known to us as The Rite of Spring. Sitting among the outraged audience is Gabrielle Chanel, Coco to her friends. She likes what she hears, and when she meets Stravinsky, she likes what she sees.
Fast forward to 1920. Chanel is already a minor legend. Stravinsky is penniless. She offers him her country villa so he can focus on his music and presumably her. Ah, but he is married and has four children.
"Bring them, too. I admire your music, and I want to help you," she says matter-of-factly.
Already perfecting her black-and-white fashions of order and design, Chanel turns to the burgeoning design of essence.
"I'm after something new and daring," says Chanel. "A perfume that is as complex as a personality."
"What shall we call it?" asks a friend.
"I'll call it Chanel."
When composing, Stravinsky doesn't simply play the piano. He pounds the keys as if digging for more complexity from the chords.
Both his and her creations serve as backdrop for a torrid affair. And the screen burns when they're together. No amount of air conditioning in the theater cools this movie.
American audiences may not know Anna Mouglalis, who plays Chanel, but this is an international star-turn. You may recognize Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen who plays Stravinsky. He gave James Bond a pretty rough go as the villain in Casino Royale.
Director Jan Kounen and cinematographer David Ungaro showcase a big, talented cast with lush, elaborate sets.
And then there are the costumes. Chattoune Bourrec and Fabien Esnard-Lascombe (known as Chattoune and Fab) re-create classic Chanel designs in addition to crafting wardrobes of 1920s Paris. Might as well reserve an Oscar for them right now.
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky has its uneven moments but creating a fictional souffle with two highly-charged artistic geniuses can be risky business. Sometimes it rises. Sometimes it falls. Overall, this mysterious duet of melody and design is a thing of beauty.