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I Am Love; Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky

Love or Marriage

I Am Love; Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky

I Am Love
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky

Adultery sure isn’t what it used to be. A staple of storytelling from the Bible through Tolstoy and on through Depression-era American movies, much of its narrative and moral consequence seems to have been lost more recently. (Except perhaps in Batavia, New York, where a bluenose prosecutor recently brought a very rare criminal charge against a married woman.)

But two films opening in Buffalo this week revolve around illicit affairs. One of them takes two historical characters—Igor Stravinsky and Coco Chanel—and imagines the private behavior and mutually aroused feelings of those two tempestuous individuals. The other, the grandiloquently titled I Am Love, tries to revive an old-fashioned genre: a story of an emotionally liberating adulterous liaison that this time never seems much more than anachronistically beside the point.

Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love follows the path to personal fulfillment of a bourgeois wife in Italy, although it’s never really obvious what plight she’s freeing herself from. Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton) is the helpmate of Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), a wealthy business executive in a family-owned textile factory in Milan. A native of Russia, this mother of three adult children has apparently acclimated herself very comfortably and runs the household and its uniformed domestic staff with gracious efficiency and no detectible resentments.

Early on, at a Christmas-season birthday party for the family’s patriarch, Antonio (Edourdo Gabbriellini), a chef and a friend of Emma’s son Edo (Flavio Parenti), shows up with a gift cake and meets her. Soon he’s catering Recchi parties, and when he invites Emma to taste one of his culinary creations, her reaction seems to portend rather more than an exchange of recipes. Contriving to “accidentally” run into the younger man in San Remo, where he hopes to open a restaurant on family property, Emma winds up going with him to this mountainside retreat. In an ecstatic union, she sheds her spiritual carapace amid the rustic splendor of northern Italy.

This is supposed to be life-affirming, and life-changing, stuff. But Guadagnino never provides anything dramatically or sociologically resonant about this secret affair. We haven’t been treated to a post-Ibsenist, neo-D. H. Lawrence epiphany. Tancredi is no Torvald lording it over Emma’s Doll House. In fact, the movie makes him a rather recessive character until very near the end.

The Village Voice’s Melissa Anderson aptly notes Guadagnino’s allusions to Luchino Visconti’s powerfully charged family epics and Douglas Sirk’s florid 1950s romantic melodramas. But the homage angle doesn’t get us anywhere (Tancredi is the name of the Duke’s nephew in Visconti’s The Leopard, but its use here is just arbitrary.)

Guadagnino does handle the pacing and composition of individual scenes very ably, and Yorick le Saux’s photography of both rural and urban, interior and exterior scenes is sometimes gorgeous. Still, I think it was the third time his camera gave us a close-up of brilliant-hued wildflowers against a hazy background when I felt like telling someone, “Okay, I get it!” The movie’s progression from winter to a richly fertile spring parallels Emma’s blossoming, and Guadagnino doesn’t leave a smidgeon of doubt about this. He seems enthralled with all the vapid voluptuousness he’s created.

The title of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky says about all there is to say. Dutch director Jan Kounen has given us a fictional recreation of the details and dynamics of a brief affair between the renowned composer and the 20th century’s preeminent couturier.

In 1920, Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) invited the exiled Russian Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) and his family to live at her French country home, ostensibly to work in subsidized peace and comfort. Perhaps inevitably, the two quickly came together with more than an exchange of aesthetic ideas on their minds, under the nose and eyes of his wife, Katria. The film conceives of this as more than erotic convenience; it encourages us to regard it as deeply impactive on both of them, the results haunting them for the rest of their lives. The biographical records don’t make this clear, but the movie, adapted by Chris Greenhalgh from his own novel, at least gives this point of view a surface plausibility.

Kounen’s film opens with a masterly portrayal of the uproariously contentious reception to the first performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913. It’s perhaps the most compelling presentation of a musical event in any film. From there, things quiet down as the two people, and their titanic egos, become entangled.

Kounen’s film has its own visual and aural rewards, although it lacks the swooning lushness of I Am Love. It does make considerably more sense, however.

Watch the trailer for I Am Love

Watch the trailer for Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky

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