Tuesday 3 August 2010

They come in pairs (ST 08/08/10)

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (15) 120 mins ***
Knight and Day (12A) 109 mins **

Seeking to distinguish itself from last summer’s glossy fashion-plate Coco Before Chanel, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, from French provocateur Jan Kounen, tacks a very different seam from the off. In a lengthy prelude depicting The Rite of Spring’s infamous opening night, Kounen’s camera roves restlessly, registering both the ineffable strangeness of the ballet itself and the remarkable scale of hullabaloo it provoked. “C’est un bruit!,” comes the first audience objection. “Call a dentist!,” follows another, swiftly topped by “Call two dentists!,” a panning that must, surely, have lost something in translation.

It’s a galvanising moment of the Parisian avant-garde, and one hell of a meet-cute for the figures enshrined in the title. Numbed with grief at her lover Boy’s recent demise, Coco (Anna Mouglalis) was roused by the bold cut of the Stravinsky jib, while Igor (Mads Mikkelsen) – living in penury with his sickly wife and children – found himself badly in need of the designer’s support. Coco insisted the Stravinskys move into her newly empty residence, and while Mrs. S (Elena Morozova) ailed, the two creatives began to circle one another. She darned his waistcoats, he taught her piano, and before long, legato was giving way to leg-over; the only clothes we observe are those littering the bedroom floor.

Kounen takes this Man About the House scenario wholly seriously, determined to prove he can make a film without smirking. The action buff’s natural suspicion of words aids his cause: with dialogue scant, it’s left to the visuals – Stravinsky prowling Coco’s parlour, or communing with nature – to suggest these characters’ interior states, David Ungaro’s attentive Steadicam photography underlining the film’s status as period drama de luxe. Mouglalis’s Coco almost inevitably emerges as more fascinating than Audrey Tautou’s girly mannequin: lived-in, mournful, intrinsically alone, a wounded creature reaching for affection, and lashing out when she finds she can’t have it.

There were, however, three people in this relationship, and Kounen avoids casting easy judgements. Mikkelsen offers a nicely cagey reading of a man who may be more conventional than he’s prepared to admit, and Morozova works overtime to humanise a character otherwise defined by misplucked eyebrows – a style faux pas Coco would surely have had down as a no-no. The film may be tougher to swoon over than Coco Before Chanel, but its reluctance to settle into pretty-pretty convention is admirable: the finale owes something to 2001, of all films. Kounen commits to a harsh, angular modernism, in morality as much as design; the finished article is a love triangle with corners not frilled, but spiked.

From ménage-à-trois to folie à deux. Knight and Day is yet another recent American release to feel conceived primarily as a poster campaign, with the movie itself as an afterthought. It’s Tom Cruise. It’s Cameron Diaz. It’s a (lamely) punning title. What, we might reasonably ask, could go wrong? For Diaz’s unlikely car restorer June, it involves bumping into handsome stranger Roy (Cruise) en route to her sister’s wedding. He seems the perfect gentleman, but – surprise! – he’s actually a trained assassin: you know, just like John Cusack in Grosse Pointe Blank, Brad Pitt in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Ashton Kutcher in Killers.

Admittedly, Roy reveals his true colours mid-flight, which at least provides a novel backdrop for the lead to show off his mixed-combat skills, and strangle one foe with an oxygen mask; the remainder of Knight and Day thus unspools as flat-out chase movie, as the leads dodge Government forces after the renewable energy source Roy has acquired, and engage in some slickly conspicuous carnage. At one point, Roy starts waving his gun around in a diner equipped with a dozen CCTV cameras, suggesting this fugitive is actively seeking celebrity status.

The film, after all, is being sold on old-school star power, a resource that has of late come to seem increasingly finite. In truth, Cruise’s control-freak demeanour doesn’t lend itself easily to this kind of brakes-off romp; he’s only ever convincing here – as he was in Michael Mann’s darker-hued Collateral – whenever his finger is on the trigger. Diaz, for her part, remains game: for better or worse, few other A-listers would be willing to throw themselves this willingly – and without substantial character rewrites – into this unreconstructed a damsel-in-distress role.

Whole stretches of Knight and Day depend on June being drugged by her companion, and when she awakens from one blackout in a teensy bikini on a Caribbean beach, we’re simply not expected to dwell on how Roy got her there. The film, directed by the generally capable James Mangold (Walk the Line), has narcotising properties of its own: bright and comparatively brisk, it’s a genuine no-brainer, dashing out of one ear before it’s barely introduced itself to the other. But if this is the best idea Hollywood money can presently buy, it’s no wonder everybody’s downloading their movies for free.

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is on selected release from Friday; Knight and Day opens the same day in cinemas nationwide.

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