- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 26, 2009

CANNES, France — “Coco” Chanel’s serial affairs with illustrious lovers have long been set in print, and Cannes was scheduled to close its film festival Sunday with a fact-or-fiction tale on her affair with Igor Stravinsky.

Endorsed by the fashion label and starring house “face” Anna Mouglalis and designs by Karl Lagerfeld, the story chronicles Miss Chanel’s 1913 encounter and reported ensuing affair with the Russian avant-garde composer.

History agrees that Miss Chanel, a successful businesswoman with connections to Paris’ leading artists at the time, indeed knew Stravinsky and was his patron in the 1920s, inviting him, his wife and four children to live in her country home.

Yet biographers are divided on whether the pair fell in love, and the fashion house itself says the story “is fiction, as we have no proof.”

The biopic is not an easy genre, and director Jan Kounen’s “Chanel and Stravinsky: The Secret Story” elicited little response from critics at a preview ahead of its red-carpet premiere at the evening’s closing ceremony.

However, a century after Gabrielle Chanel launched her now legendary house, and 40 years after her death, Miss Chanel is all the rage in France.

A dozen new biographies are on bookshelves. A TV film aired recently, and last month saw the release of a movie on Miss Chanel’s Cinderella-style rags-to-riches life - “Coco Before Chanel,” directed by Anne Fontaine.

Miss Fontaine’s film kicks off in the orphanage where Miss Chanel was dumped as a child and winds up with her debut as Paris’ queen of couture - a sort of making-of on the fiercely independent, free-spirited “Mademoiselle” who helped liberate women’s wear.

Among Miss Chanel’s later chronicled lovers were a Russian grand duke, a poet, a designer and the Duke of Westminster, who introduced her to Winston Churchill. During World War II, she had a liaison with a German intelligence officer, and she left France at the close of the war. She returned in 1953.

Miss Fontaine’s film shows the young woman moving in with a wealthy horse breeder and moving up in society. It ends with the 1919 death of the “love of her life,” Captain Arthur Edward “Boy” Capel, the English businessman who had provided the funds to open her first shop in Paris.

Mr. Kounen takes the plot further, opening at a legendary 1913 Paris concert where SergeiDiaghilev’s avant-gardist Russian Ballet, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky to Mr. Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” upsets theatergoers and raises a storm.

Years later, after Mr. Capel’s death, Miss Chanel and Mr. Stravinsky meet again, fall in love and have an affair as the composer’s wife, suffering from tuberculosis looks on. The wife is played by Elena Morozova.

The film, director Kounen says in production notes, “depicts an era and its protagonists, and two bodies of work - Chanel’s and Stravinsky’s.”

It shows “the artist’s ability to transcend the dramatic events of his life but also his obsession and the sacrifice that he makes of his life for the sake of his art.”

Yet at one point, the groundbreaking composer (played by Mads Mikkelsen) - who, like Miss Chanel, died in 1971 - slaps down the fashion icon, saying: “You are not an artist, Coco, you are a woman who sells fabrics.”

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