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Movie Review

Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky

A sexy look at a rumored affair between sensual artists

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / June 25, 2010

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Does “Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky’’ sound sensual? Like the sort of movie where two people take penetrating glances at each other and make love on satin sheets? It sounds more like a file in a card catalog. Nonetheless, the movie, directed by Jan Kounen, has moments of sustained rapture. It’s sexy and handsome. In 1920, the unconventional, lovelorn French fashion designer invites the stern Russian composer, his sickly wife, and four children to stay at her stately villa after he flees the revolution. He writes. She designs. Then, things being what they are — conjecture, mostly — the two start making love all over her chateau.

The movie Kounen and his co-writers, Carlo de Bounty and Chris Greenhalgh, have made of Greenhalgh’s novel is based on the rumor of an affair. As such, it’s faintly soapy. But Kounen heightens the speculative circumstances by treating them like a dream. We’re not asked to believe it, just to feel it. The camera repeats frames and movements.

Anna Mouglalis plays Coco, and it’s hard to believe a woman could look more like Chanel than Audrey Tautou, whose unyielding incarnation in last year’s “Coco Before Chanel’’ featured lots of effort but very little heat. Mouglalis does more with less. I don’t know how tall she is, but beside Mads Mikkelsen — who plays Stravinsky in a way that personifies the old saying about still waters — she looks long, lean, and intimidating.

We’re never at a loss for what these two might have seen in each other. They both appear to have forbidding natures, obsessive sides, and better behaved passions than most people. Chanel wasn’t interested in the conventions of sexual attraction. She was married to her business. But you never sense that Stravinsky is another conquest for her. Her first encounter with him is after the notorious 1913 Paris performance of “The Rite of Spring,’’ which gathered storm clouds over the orchestra pit and which the film thrillingly restages complete with Vaslav Nijinsky’s danse macabre and the explosive jeers of the French crowd.

You can’t blame her. If you’re Chanel, to want a man who’s trying to change music is human; to bed him, divine. And he’s just as taken with her. In one fine sequence, Stravinsky wanders around Chanel’s bedroom while she’s out. He surveys the furniture, his artistic antennae gathering carnal knowledge. She’s all but next to him.

When I say the movie is soapy, I mean it follows the contours of emotional excess. But “Coco and Igor’’ — a much less PhD title — is high-minded, too. Mrs. Stravinskaya (Elena Morozova) catches her husband giving Chanel a piano lesson and connects the dots. She then suffers in silence but shrewdly plays on Chanel’s sense of moral duty.

The film’s seriousness doesn’t harden into solemnity. Kounen luxuriates in the supremely sensory nature of Chanel’s and Stravinsky’s art. He’s working on a new piece of music. She’s rethinking pedestrian fabrics and collaborates with a perfumer in the South of France on a knockout fragrance. The imperatives of their passion are passed along to us. Feel this jersey. Hear this suite. Smell my No. 5. To sleep wrapped in this movie would be no different than watching it. Lust here has a thread count.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

COCO CHANEL AND IGOR STRAVINSKY Directed by: Jan Kounen

Written by: Kounen, Carlo de Bounty, and Chris Greenhalgh, adapted from Greenhalgh’s novel

Starring: Anna Mouglalis, Mads Mikkelsen, and Elena Morozova

At: Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, West Newton

Running time: 118 minutes

In French and Russian, with English subtitles

Rated: R (for some strong sexuality and nudity)

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