Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky - Chris Greenhalgh

Coco Chanel and Composer Igor Stravinsky.
Their love affair inspired their art.
Their art defined an era.

In 1913, at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, the young couturiere Coco Chanel witnesses the birth of a musical revolution- one that, like her designs, rips down the artifice of the old regime and ushers in something profoundly modern. Seven years later, she invites Stravinsky and his family, now exiled from their Russian homeland, for a summer at her villa, and the powerful charge between them ignites into a deep love affair. As Stravinsky enjoys a new burst of creativity and Chanel brings forth her own revolutionary creation-the perfume Chanel No. 5-their love threatens to overtake work, family and life.





First off, just have to say I wish the title was something more enticing. Even just shortening it to Coco & Igor would have been cool. Just seems like having nothing but their full names makes it kinda feel like a high school essay. That's just my two cents. Movin' on...


Greenhalgh's novel is a fictional take on the relationship between iconic French clothing designer Coco Chanel and the (married) composer Igor Stravinksy. Coco Chanel, in this story, is a young woman who seems to catch the eye of nearly every man in town. Deciding to attend one of Stravinsky's concerts one night, Coco is instantly, deeply moved by his music. She is briefly introduced to him but after that night doesn't see him again for another 7 years. The storyline takes some time to explain what goes on in these lives separately before they are to be reunited. Igor's story mainly focuses on him, along with his wife and children, being driven out of their home in Russia after the assassination of the ruling Romanov family. The Stravinskys retreat to a cramped apartment in Brittany, France and try to set up a new life there, though Igor's missus isn't really feeling the new surroundings. Her discomfort and unhappiness slowly starts to drive a wedge between them. Igor, frustrated with the tense home life, craves finding happiness again... somehow. Home life becomes even more strained when his wife develops a life-threatening illness, throwing her even further into depression. 


Igor, being an established composer by this point, is invited to a dinner party in Paris where Miss Chanel just happens to be another guest. The reunion is a little rocky, she initially finds him to be short, balding, with bad teeth and, as she says in the story, "an air of trying too hard to appear bohemian" but later realizes "his dandyism is an act... It masks a deep sense of insecurity and a profound sense of loss. Loss of state and selfhood. The man is clinging on, she thinks." Her curiosity about him reengaged, their friendship grows over the coming months, becoming something of a flirtation even though Coco never really got over the death of her love, Arthur "Boy" Capel. 


I found it a little laughable in this story that the character of Coco talks about how she likes Igor but doesn't love that he's still married. Additionally, Coco is plagued by a reputation of men categorizing her as "not being the kind of girl you marry", so is often dissatisfied with having to settle for being side piece. But her friends are pretty much like "ehhh, go for it anyway", their reasoning being that there's a shortage of men after World War I so one should grab what she can get... LOL, great friends there.


As far as the romance between Igor & Coco portrayed here, it was just okay for me. Honestly, their banter got on my nerves at times and Igor often struck me as seriously needing to find his backbone in so many of the situations. What kept my interest more was the little side stories of Coco's life, the fictionalized portrayals of bits of Chanel's life that I've read in bios. Her romances with not only Capel but also Etienne Balsan (this novel opens with Chanel as an elderly woman on the last day of her life, looking back on on the most memorable moments of years past). There's also mention of a 5 year affair with Churchill's bestie (one of them anyway), Hugh Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster. 


My favorite sections were the descriptions of Chanel in her own little world when she was designing, the moments she was most proud of. She reminisces about designing costumes for Hollywood, notably Tonight or Never with Gloria Swanson and Last Year at Marienbad with Alain Resnais.


just one of the looks Chanel created for 

Gloria Swanson in Tonight or Never


one of the Chanel designed looks in Last Year At Marienbad (1961)

It's been said that much of the fashion in this film directly

inspired the look of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. 



My favorite part in the story, though it was a very minor portion, was the description of Chanel working up to the design of her iconic scent, Chanel No. 5. I cracked up at the line "better than the stench of resin from an orchestra pit". Well, that does sound like a nice selling point! Slap that on the label! X-D


They regard her, these women, with disapproval, without quite knowing why. It's not as if she's more decorative. Quite the opposite. If anything, the cut of her clothes is austere. The simplicity of her gown, its restrained elegance, makes them seem almost gaudy by comparison. And her silhouette is intimidatingly slim. It is this quality of understatement, this nonchalance de luxe, they find disrespectful. The impression she gives is that she's not even trying. It seems so effortless, they feel undermined. 


To Coco, conscious of the disdainful glances she's attracting, these others seem ridiculous in their plumes and feathers, their taffeta gowns and heavy velvet dresses. If they want to look like chocolate boxes, that's their affair, she reasons.  As for her, she prefers to look like a woman.


So yeah, as a stand-alone historical fiction, IMO it's not bad but not great. I think my attention would be better retained with just sticking with Chanel biographies. If you've read anything about the real woman herself, you can't deny she got a lot of living in while she was on this big blue rock! 


I saw the movie adaptation of this some years ago but have forgotten a lot of it. I'll be doing a re-watch shortly and will tag an update on here with some of my thoughts on the film. 



Update after film re-watch: 


The movie, released in 2009 and directed by Jan Kounen, is presented in French with English subtitles. Coco Chanel is played by French actress Anna Mouglalis while composer Igor Stravinsky is played by Danish actor Madds Mikkelsen.


The adaptation is nicely done, but it does take some patience on the part of the viewer. It opens with what in the book would've been Chanel attending her first Stravinsky concert but while the book leaves pretty much as "attended a concert, had a nice time, we should do it again sometime", the film decided to pull out a weird interpretive dance scene... one that ran over 15 mins with almost no dialogue! 


Now, if you can get through that (maybe fast forward through that bit if it's not your thing), the movie gets really good and stays pretty true to the novel for the most part. I didn't love how the director chose to do the ending, but otherwise I thought the film nailed the time period, the feel of Chanel's world, all of that. When you watch this film, you can't deny the Frenchness of it! 


I enjoyed how they were also able to incorporate actual World War 1 footage into some of the scenes and would highly recommend viewers watch the behind the scenes documentary offered on the DVD. Very cool info and stories there, and the actor who played Stravinsky, while I was impressed his seriousness to approaching the role of Stravinsky, also had quite the sense of humor!


Also worth watching, the short film (under 20 mins):  Once Upon A Time by Karl Lagerfeld, starring Keira Knightly as a young CoCo Chanel. I'm actually not a huge fan of Lagerfeld myself, but I did think this film was beautifully shot.