Sounding Off on Coco



You might not have thought you needed another Coco Chanel movie, but Jan Kounen’s Coco & Igor (out today from Sony Picture Classics) stands apart from the 2009 box office hit, Coco Avant Chanel, and the made-for-TV movie, Coco Chanel, which starred Shirley MacLaine. It is not the lovely acting, nor the original set, the cinematography nor the costumes (look out for a Karl Lagerfeld-designed piece) that sustains this film. It’s the original music composed by Gabriel Yared that truly delivers the passion and drive for redefinition that brewed between the two artists.

“My music is just here as an underscore to underline the story and relationship between Coco and Igor,” the 61-year-old Lebanese composer said.

Coco & Igor depicts the brief yet tumultuous love affair between Coco Chanel (Anna Mouglalis) and the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (Mads Mikkelsen) in the early 1920s, along with the creation of two of their great works (Chanel No. 5 and “The Rite of Spring,” respectively) The film is a constant wrestling match for power fueled by passion, and for Gabriel Yared, the core of the film is not about Chanel but instead about Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” the 1913 Paris premiere of which opens the film.

“The first few bassoon notes, ‘dee, dah dee dah dee dah dee,’ I kept with me through out so to pay homage to Stravinsky,” Yared said.

Yared was born in Lebanon in 1949 to a family  in which he was the self-admitted black sheep. His father granted him accordion lessons at the age of seven, and it was after that, in his 30-minute weekly piano lessons, where Yared learned how to read and write. “I was always really keen on reading,” he said. “I think because when you are self-taught, you are hungry.” Now, each morning, he reads one of Bach’s cantatas. “It takes me about a year,” he said of the 224 compositions. “When you love, your eye sees each day something new,” he said. “It is like a human love.”

Gabriel is not as promiscuous in his musical relationships as some of his colleagues. Throughout his professional career, which began 1979, he has composed scores for only 75 films. He won an Oscar and a Grammy for The English Patient (1996) and was nominated for The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) and Cold Mountain (2003). “Five or six films a year is average for others,” he said. “But when you write a lot, you don’t have time to dig or to renew yourself. I have to feed inspiration with new things.”

He chooses his collaborators carefully: “I want to work only with people I love and understand and respect,” he said. “Jan Kounen is a treat,” he said of the Coco & Igor director. “He understands. He is bold. He is a companion and a friend.”

In his unconditional devotion to music–”It’s my only way of breathing”–he approaches film composition like a marriage. For his next film, The Tourist, directed by his good friend Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Yared was on set in Venice for four months so he could get to know the stars, Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, before creating a dance for them.

His work for Coco & Igor was a different story. Yared jumped in just three months before dubbing, although he says he usually needs far more time in order to match the true spirit of a film: “Otherwise, it becomes more of an industry, and we become music makers–not composers.” But it wasn’t all so difficult when the intended center of the score was Stravinsky’s famous “The Rite of Spring,” he already had known for years.

“It is a wildness and craziness, sustained by a fantastic skill that continues to make ‘The Rite of Spring’ unlike anything else,” Yared said. In the end, at the film’s final five-minute montage scene, Yared looks to catch it.