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August 12, 2009

Cheating with Chanel














A few weeks ago, I saw Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky at a closed viewing before the official release date. There were glasses of cava and bottles of number 5. The idea was that we would talk the film up before the release. I didn't feel like writing a review. Partly because of vacation mode, partly because... meh.

I went in on a slight cava buzz, expecting to crave Coco's clothes and to love Igor's music. Check. Check. Also, she apparently had a great house. But that was it.

I would warn of spoilers, but spoilers require a plot.

The full extent of the plot is revealed on the movie poster: Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky have sex. No, it wasn't porn, but that was really what happened. She is rich and admires his work. He moves into her house with his entire family, including wife, so that he can have a quiet place to compose. In a series of scenes that zoom closely in on their two faces, we get that the two main characters are thinking about each other a lot. One night she goes into his room and takes off her dress. And I think: "No! The clothes are the best part of this movie!"

Not that the whole thing isn't all very pretty. I mean, look at the trailer:

But I would prefer a slide show of Chanel clothes set to a Stravinsky soundtrack. The "plot" only makes the two seem selfish and horrible. His wife is in the next room. So are his children.

After reading Lust in Translation last week, I started thinking about this movie again. The author, Pamela Druckerman, an American living in Paris, went to China, South Africa, Japan and Russia among others to research cheating. According to Druckerman, while the cheated spouse is always hurt, no one is more devastated by infidelity than Americans. The French for example don't cheat any more than the Americans, but if it happens, it's not all that surprising to them. Being cheated on in France doesn't change your world view, or make you question everything your cheating partner has ever done. According to Druckerman, both the Russians and the French are calmer than Americans about the whole issue of lying.

I don't know how I'm "supposed" to react to infidelity, since Lust in Translation doesn't have a chapter on Scandinavia. But Stravinsky's Russian wife calmly, but tragically accepts her fate, and she's the one I sympathise with, at least up to a certain point.

I think the audience is supposed to be on Coco and Igor's side, but I certainly wasn't. The interaction between them doesn't justify the cheating to me.  The characters don't seem to be in love or to inspire each others' work or even to like each other all that much.

It's as if the script writers want us to think: If two attractive geniuses spend enough time together, of course they should have an affair. And since the movie is marketed at fans of both the main characters, of course we'll all sympathise with them. Coco is my heroine already, surely she can do no wrong on screen?

Well, my sympathy did swing back to Chanel for a moment when Igor's wife wrote har a letter saying: "I need him more than you do." Maybe that comment hit too close to home for me, too close to the idea that "strong women" can handle anything, so they better not need anything or anyone.

I know that this film is based on a novel which is based on a true story. So it happened, but that doesn't make it believable to me. There is a difference between realistic and believable. But perhaps reality or the novel has an interpretation of events more sympathetic to Chanel and Stravinsky.

Especially Chanel, who as my friend Martine pointed out after the viewing, could be an interesting character to discuss from a feminist point of view: She provides a house for Stravinsky, she is a successful and really sort of bitchy business woman during the story; she initiates the affair. And most importantly to me, she ends it. I wouldn't mind reading this story as a novel where we actually see what's going on inside this woman's head.

In the meantime, listen to this and browse here instead.

Posted by Julie at August 12, 2009 11:33 AM

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