Film Review #205: Chéri
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathy Bates, Rupert Friend
Here is that unusual film that is worth seeing as much for its flaws as for its considerable accomplishments. In order to do that around here you’ll have to be quick, because it’s playing for one week only right now at Manlius Art Cinema.
Chéri reunites its star, Michelle Pfeiffer (as the aging Parisian courtesan Lea de Lonval on the eve of World War I), with director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, 21 years after their collaboration on Dangerous Liaisons. Based on Colette’s 1920 novel Chéri and its sequel, this film is the latest of a string of adaptations – a film in 1950, television plays in 1962 and 1973, and a stage musical in 1980 – which suggest the enduring tug of its story. On the verge of deciding she’ll “retire” and live on her investments after her last patron has departed for Russia, Lea impulsively enters what she assumes will be a two or three week dalliance with Chéri (English actor Rupert Friend), the spoiled and moody 19-year-old son of her colleague, Madame Charlotte Peloux (a boisterous Kathy Bates). Some years later, Charlotte intervenes and arranges a marriage for Chéri with young Edmee (Felicity Jones), daughter of another woman in their circle. (One of the best moments between these two occurs as they voice having grown up as feeling like “orphans” amidst the entrepreneurial excess of their mothers’ households.) Initially he assumes this marriage won’t upset his arrangement with Lea. Ever worldly-wise, she sends him packing after a last shopping trip, this time for his wedding present, a pearl stick pin. But neither does well with this separation, despite parallel lavish trips to the Italian lakes district and the French Riviera and the intended consolations of other partners. There are reversals, tearful declarations of love, more reversals and in a voice-over by Frears himself – old English majors take note – a kind of “Richard Corey” ending.
Michelle Pfeiffer is wonderful and quite moving as Lea and, in enough of the moments where it really counts – especially their last scene together when each is finally able to say what their love consists in and then live up to that – Rupert Friend matches her. Just after the film opened in late July, a still luminous Pfeiffer told Washington Post reporter Dan Zak that what she really fears is winding up like Norma Desmond (the character in Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, a garish and deluded former star rattling around in a dilapidated mansion). Their interview as Zak reports it got off to a rocky start when he suggested that Pfeiffer’s own “golden age” had been the years 1987 to 1993. During that time she made the films Ladyhawke, The Witches of Eastwick, Dangerous Liaisons, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Batman Returns, Love Field and The Age of Innocence, a golden age by anybody’s standard. (Zak has since said admiringly of Pfeiffer’s Chéri performance, “Everybody’s got at least one golden age. I think she may be on the verge of another.”)
If Zak’s opening gambit left an overly long pause to get past, that Pfeiffer had Norma Desmond in the back of her mind explains a deeper bite to her performance and its commentary on aging and loss of youth. In fact, Lea and Charlotte stand out among some pretty Desmond-like contemporaries – one with raccoon eyes and horribly arthritic hands, another whose ropey throat and slack lips Chéri notices because she wears a string of pearls like Lea’s own (Harriet Walter and Anita Pallenberg, both unrecognizable) – who are really not simply comic relief figures.
Zak’s “golden age” reference originates in the fact that Chéri is set in the period known in Europe as the Belle Époque, covering roughly the last couple decades of the 19th century up until World War I. This corresponded with the “Gilded Age” in the US - a time of massive colonialism globally, robber barons, new fortunes by scandalous means, wild extravagance and the shifting social classes and gaps that led to the collapses of World War I and beyond. It was also a time of massive shifts in gender roles. It’s no coincidence that Charlotte and Lea, a couple of wily operators, talk over how their investments in oil futures are doing late in a film whose major male character favors pearls and white satin pajamas and complains he’s been kept as helpless as a 12-year-old. “Leave all the arrangements to me,” soothes Lea as readily as any sugar daddy. Colette’s novel opens with the scene where Chéri teases Lea to give him her string of pearls, immediately framing the story as one of skewed relations between the genders as a lens to comprehend broader shifts. Frears and Hampton put that scene further in, framing the story instead – at least in tone – as escapist fare, a kind of light farce about harmless May-December seduction among the rich and famous.
Or at least marketing it that way. The film’s trailer uses clips from the film that create the impression this is a comedy; these moments often stick out like sore thumbs in the course of the film itself. It’s hard to tell how much this is a marketing strategy for a summer release and how much it reflects the continued ambivalence among filmmakers and audiences alike with the film’s more serious themes. Chéri opened in limited release in 80 theaters to start here in the US. Despite a decent enough box office (up to 170 screens this week) and a cascade of initial coverage heralding the come-back of Michelle Pfeiffer, there was no advance press screening for the Manlius run (hence this review getting posted late and on-line only). Distributors pull press screenings when they don’t want to risk soft ticket sales. Critics have been lukewarm to this film – it’s gotten only a 50% favorable rating at the Rotten Tomatoes site – I suspect because it can’t quite own up to its own serious intent, and if there’s one thing we expect in our summer movies it’s clear, unambiguous intent. This movie more than repays the extra effort.
This review was announced in the July 16, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Chéri plays at Manlius through this Thursday, with two matinees daily this weekend and a regular 7:30 PM showing weeknights. In a wry bit of serial scheduling, Manlius Cinema’s Nat Tobin will follow Cheri with Woody Allen’s Whatever Works (also for one week) which several critics have suggested would make an intriguing double feature if paired with Chéri. On July 31st, Manlius opens Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker – so far, an exclusive CNY engagement.