Jan Kounen, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky
In his stylish new chamber drama Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, which closed the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, Dutch-born filmmaker Jan Kounen (Dobermann) observes the hothouse affair between married modernist composer-in-exile Igor Stravinsky and legendary French couturier Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (played by Audrey Tautou in last year’s Coco Before Chanel). Based on a novel by Chris Greenhalgh, the film depicts a collision of oil-and-water egos: the brooding composer meets his obscure object of desire in the fiercely independent-minded Chanel, who proves to be forward-thinking about love and as fully immersed in her own art. Prior to tackling this period story of fraught passion and creative fecundity, Kounen was best known on the Continent for garish steam-punk adventures like Vibroboy and Blueberry, a psychotronic Western. He’s also an accomplished documentarian with an avowed interest in Peruvian shamanism (Other Worlds) and world spiritual traditions (Darshan was an impressionistic portrait of Amma, India’s mother saint of hugging).
Kounen’s film opens with a tour-de-force recreation of the infamously rancorous debut of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring at the Théatre des Champs Elysées in 1913. Seven years later, exiled from Russia by the Revolution, Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) attends a cocktail party and meets haute designer Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis), an admirer we’ve previously glimpsed at the Paris premiere, smiling wanly as the audience reacts with outrage at the oddity of the music and Nijinsky’s extravagant modern-primitive choreography. She offers to bunk Igor, his tubercular wife Katarina (Elena Morozova), and their four children at her chic, well-appointed country manse (it has a signature black-and-white Art Deco color scheme, of course), so he can work in peace and seclusion. As the two strong-willed artists grow more comfortable with the unusual domestic arrangement, and then more intimate (Stravinsky grinds out tempestuous works with renewed passion while the effortlessly confident Chanel works a meticulous chemist to perfect her most famous perfume), their quickly blossoming affair does not fail to escape the notice of proud, devoted Katarina, whose inner sorrow counterbalances the cheating couple’s combustive, and eventually destructive, lovemaking sessions.
Sony Pictures Classics opens Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky in New York on Friday.
Filmmaker: Not everyone recalls the circumstances surrounding the debut of The Rite of Spring in 1913, how contentious and unpopular it was, and here you’ve really brought it to life. How did you create that stunning opening sequence?
Kounen: That scene was the most difficult of any I’ve done so far. It was a kind of battle scene, on a great scale. There were a lot of testimonies about that night, because it was so intense. The dance itself was such a scandal at the time, because they didn’t have a partition. I found a choreographer, Dominique Brun, who knew Nijinsky very well, so we did some archaeology. For example, there were photos, drawings of the different positions of the dancers, testimonies about how they were moving. Based on that, we reconstructed the ballet. There were photos of the costumes, which still exist in museums of the world, so we had those, and the Théatre des Champs Elysées still exists, so we shot there. We had to choose which pieces of music to use, because the ballet is forty minutes, and the scene is around 12 or 13 minutes. It was very expensive [to shoot]. We know we were going to have 1,000 extras, but not all on the same day. For the rest of the film, I didn’t do storyboards, but for this scene I [needed to know] when a certain musician would play out in front, and when we would see the audience. We had only three days to shoot at the theater, and at night they had performances, so at 5pm we had to pull the plug and run away. [Laughs] For this reason, I could not achieve the whole scene in three days. Also, the backstage is very modern today. So we did reconstruct that in the studio. At the very beginning of the sequence, you have one master shot that brings you from Stravinsky, through the theater and into the backstage, then onto the stage and out into the audience. That was shot in two pieces, actually, which we put together in postproduction.
Filmmaker: A monumental undertaking.
Kounen: Yes. [Laughs] It’s very motivating for a filmmaker to do this scene, because you dedicate yourself to the work of another artist. Normally, you compose from your own imaginary. Here, you present the possibility—and that’s the beauty of cinema—that people can sit in the actual theater and have that experience. You see the incredible, creative, crazy ballet of Nijinsky and hear the music. You see something very provocative and [people shouting]. One hundred years later, this is [considered] a masterpiece and everyone thinks, who are these stupid guys yelling?
Filmmaker: Based on films like Dobermann and Blueberry, you seem to have favored fantasy, adventure, and sensation over the subtleties of intimate drama. How did this project land with you and why did you think it was a good fit?
Kounen: As a French filmmaker, when Claudie Ossard [producer of Amélie] calls, you listen. [Laughs] I was up for doing something absolutely different—the intimate story of a couple, passion and love, in one setting with only three characters. I was excited by that. Both characters embodied very interesting male and female personalities. They are two great artists in their own domain, but they are very different, even in the way we see them work. One is more a man from the previous century, and Chanel is a modern woman of 1913.
Filmmaker: That comes through in the sense that he can’t recognize that she’s an artist.
Filmmaker: What kind of research did you do to understand their temperaments better?
Kounen: We are gifted in the case of Stravinsky because he wrote a book called Chronicle of My Life, and this was really the set-up for the character. But he speaks only about music. There is one line about Coco, one line about his wife, and maybe some words on his kids. His personal story is about two sentences. The rest is about his music and how he sees the music of others. So for me that determined a person very much dedicated to his art and also very self-centered on his own objectives. For Coco, of course, there are a lot of biographies and testimonies. What helped me a lot was to spend time in her apartment among her objects. It’s very bizarre when you sit in the same chair that this person also sat in, touch her books, and get [a sense of her].
Filmmaker: How familiar were you with the pre-war Belle Époque period?
Kounen: For art and design, I think it was the most beautiful period of the century. I’m not a specialist of this period. I know it like everyone, vaguely, because [I] have studied it a little. You know the architecture is incredible. Also, it’s really a jump to the future. Stravinsky’s almost bringing abstraction into music, at one point, making it less melodic and more visceral.
Filmmaker: What did recreating this period involve in terms of adapting your filmmaking?
Kounen: If you go into period film, one very interesting point is to forget that you’re doing a period film. Many things are different a century ago, of course. People behave differently because they have a different way of thinking and doing things, a different vision of beauty. So you have to learn all that, but it’s all [about] the characters. Sometimes you become very focused filming the [action]. If it was [set] today, you would do the same. Maybe I didn’t succeed all the time, because I was fascinated by so many things, but I tried to shoot it like I was somebody in the 1920s. Do you know what I mean? I was not shooting for the detail, but for the character, yet still filling the picture with it.
Filmmaker: Mads Mikkelsen is an odd character. What are your impressions of him as an actor?
Kounen: He was attached to the project, initially. I wanted to do a psychological chamber drama [with] Mads Mikkelsen. Have you seen The Green Butchers? He’s playing such an asshole, a no-brain guy. And knowing how bright and intelligent he is, he’s amazing in it. He’s an actor you look with pleasure at the idea of working with. He’s very confident, and he’s very easy to work with once you agree on things. He was really pushy on the character when we read the scenes. He’s really on you, the director. I was afraid sometimes that he would take a lot of space on the shoot. After we started, he was exactly the opposite, and he was a hard worker. He had a couple of weeks to learn French and Russian and piano.
Filmmaker: I know you have a longstanding interest in shamanism, the ayahuasca experience, and South American tribes like the Shipibo-Conibo. How did you get involved in that world and how has it influenced your filmmaking?
Kounen: I discovered the ayahuasca medicine ten years ago. I go often to South America and I follow diets of different plants with the healers, just to understand, not to practice. Those experiences change you a little. If you’re a filmmaker, your changes are [reflected] in your films. So let’s say, you’ve made Dobermann, and after having [investigated] this tradition, you go to India and make Darshan. You’re open to exploring other traditions. There is something to listen to, to be open to, and you film it—not to think or judge, just to film.
Filmmaker: Metaphorically speaking, filmmakers are like shamans for audiences, messengers between the human and spiritual worlds, if cinema can be regarded as an otherworldly realm.
Kounen: Yes, because what are you going to give an audience, and how are you going to let them leave the cinema? Nostalgic or sad, maybe? What’s your intention? Do you just want to make them afraid and shake them? It’s like a myth. Even with “Red Riding Hood,” there is terrifying drama. But we learn through the experience to overcome fear. When you are with a healer, through his songs and his melody, he will drive you to an emotional journey that you will live in a cinematic, ayahuasca world. You will be the screen, not the filmmaker. That also changed [my sensibility]. I was a bit punk when I was younger. Like, we’re going to blow up the screen and laugh and fuck the others. That’s gone, I think. I like to provoke. Still, as an artist you have different dimensions you have to explore. You are not here to congratulate the society that you live in. Yet the idea is not to be pessimistic. You need to give information but also good energy.
Filmmaker: So push back a little on the audience.
Kounen: Why do we go to cinema? We live the emotions of others who are on the screen. We know everything is fake, but the emotions are not fake. We feel love and pain. In general, these are not always the emotions we can have in our life. We’re going to be confronted with extremes. So maybe through that we can approach some emotions that are mythical. If you view it this way, it’s important to know what you want to do to the audience. This questioning has a lot of connection to shamanic medicine. It’s virtual, you’re not going to die, but you’re going to live the sensation. It’s a bit like cinema, except that when you go and meet the Shipibo people, there’s no way you can exit the cinema. [Laughs] You are the film.