Sunday, July 18, 2010

Coco and Igor

Are you a fan of the True Blood series on HBO? If you are, then you are probably familiar with the moment a few weeks ago where vampires Bill and Lorena have what Entertainment Weekly called "the most disturbing sex scene of all time," horrifying for both plot reasons and also because during it, vampire Bill...well, just describing what happens gives me the shivers. I won't link, but the prurient can find clips online. I put this image into your mind because actually, the horror of that image has been receding, ever since last night when I saw the French film Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. Because watching vampires do their thing is nothing compared to having to watch Igor Stravinsky have sex. It's just not....right. Particularly when he is being played by a Bond villain. As a musicologist who has spent a lot of time teaching and thinking about Stravinsky, my sentiment was not probably not shared by the rest of the audience, but I found the sex scenes just excrutiating.

The film, directed by Jan Kounen, tells the story of the brief affair between Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. It begins with a staging of the Rite Riot (sounds like a Clash song!); more on that in a moment. But the bulk of the movie takes place in 1920, when Igor took his family to live at Chanel's villa outside of Paris. The historical record being portrayed isn't bad, and best not to fuss too much about historical accuracy, 'cause, whatever, it's a movie. A slow and kind of boring one, but I don't really care that much if they get every single detail right.

Upon first watching the movie, I was wondering why in 1920 Igor was still working on the Rite at Chanel's house, but I reminded myself of his biography today and he did indeed do a revision for a new production that year, so it makes sense. But focusing so much of the movie on the Rite has its perils, not the least of which is that the director constantly uses the Part 2 Introduction as moody accompaniment, and that is of course the same music that John Williams ripped off for Star Wars. So, that's awkward. But I will say that the movie makes for a fairly intelligent portrait of the moment where Stravinsky is about to move towards neo-classicism, with Mavra just a year away. The director's biographical argument, I imagine, would be something about this affair being the height of Stravinsky's crazy Paris years, full of excess and passion, to be soon replaced with restraint and objectivism. Whether you buy it or not, that's a reasonable argument, although I don't know if the average moviegoer will quite get what's going on with the larger narrative of Stravinsky's life. It's interesting to think about who the director imagined the audience for the film to be. He seemed to have assumed a passing familiarity with music history; there's a really awkward line at the beginning where a dancer introduces characters by shouting “Stop it, Nijinsky! Tell him, Diaghilev!” The audience at my theater consisted of a few elderly couples and a large contingent of Russian-speaking twenty-somethings in cocktail dresses, so I'm not sure what to make of that.

Every musicologist should probably see this movie. I'm debating whether I will use it in classes, especially the staging of the Rite Riot. Like most of us, I usually show the Joffrey performance of the Hodson reconstruction, and before the credits rolled at the end, I assumed that the director was using that same choreography. But it turns out the choreography is by Dominique Brun. I hesitate to say much more authoritatively here, because I'm not qualified to speak on dance matters; I don't know who who Brun is. Best as I can tell, she's part of a dance group, the Albert Knust Quartet, that has done a lot of interesting work with Nijinsky's legacy. In an interview, the director of the film says that she "knew" Nijinsky, which seems highly unlikely!

But at any rate, showing the ten-minute opening sequence of this film, in which the ballet and riot is staged, strikes me as a good introduction to the overall myth-and-reality of the famous premiere. It was filmed largely on location at the theater, the costumes and scenery look authentic, and most importantly, the cinematic experience is much more powerful than the clumsy camerawork of the Joffrey production. Frankly, it would be interesting to juxtapose the two. My teaching of the Rite has been greatly informed by Tamara Levitz's essay "The Chosen One's Choice," which among other things talks about how different performances of the role of the sacrificial virgin can make powerful arguments about the meaning of the work as a whole--does she willingly and blindly submit herself to the community, or does she make a powerful and individualistic statement?

Which does actually bring me to one last criticism. The movie gives us a lot of insight, right or wrong, into Stravinsky's personality, but not nearly enough into that of Chanel. And there is a very odd sequence of images at the end which trivialize the whole film, including a very weird image of Chanel on stage as the Chosen One. A bit much, I think.

Photo: Stravinsky in 1911, from the Royal College of Music Center for Performance History collection.


Daniel Wolf said...

Wouldn't the erotic charge of the film been so much more interesting if it had focused on the two landmark scores of 1920, The Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Pulchinella?

PMG said...

Yes, precisely! And come to think of it, it would have made it much easier to draw a link to Chanel's aesthetic as well.

I just looked at the soundtrack listening, and apparently they did use the Symphony for Wind Instrument at some point, but I don't recall hearing it.

Ralph P. Locke said...

Thanks, Phil, for drawing scholarly attention to this film and also for mentioning possible pedagogical uses. The film sound intriguing!

Sisyphus said...

I think they actually collaborated for le train bleu... did it have anything about that?

I always liked the thought of the riot but wondered how much that was retrospectively invented/remembered. Was it really like how it went down in Modis Eksteins's book on the Great War?

PMG said...

Nothing specifically about le train bleu (I don't recall so, at least), but they did make it clear that Chanel was getting more involved in the ballet towards the end of the story.

And I admit I have not read Ekstein's book! But certainly in musicology literature, the general line is that everyone overhyped the extent of the riot for publicity purposes. Not being a total specialist in the period, the depiction of the riot seemed generally fine. The one exception would be Stravinsky angrily criticizing Nijinsky for his choreography right after the riot. As I understand it, Stravinsky didn't begin to distance himself from Nijinsky until later when he began the process (notorious in musicology thanks to Richard Taruskin's work) of trying to establish the Rite as a piece of concert music rather than a ballet.

kiko nazareth said...

i like your insight...