A Pair of Novels from Colette Provide a Star Turn for Michelle Pfeiffer
French novelist Colette may have been as famous for her sometimes scandalous life as for the literary works she produced. On film, the musical adaptation of her novel "Gigi" is probably the best known. But now a pair of her works has been combined to make "Chéri" (opening June 26 at Landmark's La Jolla Village and Hillcrest Cinemas) into a star vehicle for Michelle Pfeiffer.
Colette's novels "Chéri" and "The Last of Chéri" form the basis for this turn of the century period film. An opening title sequence informs us that this was the golden age of courtesans in Belle Époque Paris, and the most renowned of these scandalous ladies is Lea (Michelle Pfeiffer). But Lea is getting of an age where she may find it more difficult to seduce men and may need to look to some kind of retirement. But then a former rival, Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates), asks her for a favor. Charlotte has a 19-year-old son nicknamed Chéri (Rupert Friend) and he's drifting a bit aimlessly through women, wine, and parties. Charlotte would like Lea to take Cheri under her wing and teach him a little something about life and love. The worldly Lea looks at this as a pleasing diversion but what unfolds proves to be quite unexpected. Since Cheri grew up in Lea's and Charlotte's world of courtesans, affairs, and seductions, Lea discovers that she doesn't have to hide anything from him. For once in her life she can simply be herself. For his part, Cheri also discovers that he is utterly comfortable with this older woman. They discover that they have more than an affair, they have a relationship but it's one that's ultimately doomed.
Director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton previously collaborated on another period adaptation, "Dangerous Liaisons." Like "Dangerous Liaisons," "Cheri" deals with a seduction, characters that want to operate outside of socially accepted behavior, and games playing. In both films, Hampton's script captures some of the verbal cleverness of his source material and hints at the social order that weighs down on the female characters. But Frears is not quite the right director to bring "Cheri" to the screen. Frears. Frears is an odd director. There are some films that he seems to make because he was asked to ("Mrs. Henderson Presents," "High Fidelity," "The Queen"), and these feel like the work of a studio director – polished, professional but somehow devoid of real filmmaking passion. Then there are other films where he seems more invested in the product as with "My Beautiful Launderette" and "Dirty Pretty Things." Those two films also share a view of Frears' London as a melting pot for diverse cultures and a place of contradictions.
In the case of "Cheri," Frears seems to be more in studio director mode. The film glitters like a well cut gem but it's a bit chilly and uninspired. Frears is not on his home turf of contemporary England and he doesn't seem that interested in Paris of the turn of the century. The film looks lovely with stunning costumes but it's not a world that feels truly lived in. Frears wants to keep the surface bright and shiny but he's not willing to tackle some of the more serious issues the script and more importantly Colette raises. He's never willing to let Pfeiffer's Lea look old or age. The story takes us through six years yet Lea doesn't seem to age a bit, even when Frears has Pfeiffer take a long hard look at herself in a mirror, Lea is still made to look good. By keeping the tone light and the surface polished, Frears misses an opportunity to examine aspects of life, love, hypocrisy, and morality. There are also potentially interesting layers to explore in terms of how these women smartly approach their profession but those opportunities are for the most part passed over.
Pfeiffer looks elegant in the spectacular costumes and tries to invest the character with some vivacity and cleverness. But when the script asks for some real emotions, they are not there. Neither Pfeiffer nor Frears seems quite sure about the tone they should rake. Is this meant to be a sparkling comedy of love and manners or a darker romantic tale of doomed love with a hint of social commentary. So when the end of the film arrives, it's like a badly delivered punch line that just feels mistimed and not in keeping with what came before. Maybe Frears wanted the end to arrive with a jolt but it feels more like a cheat. Rupert Friend is as pretty to look at as Pfeiffer but he too provides more of a surface than a fully fleshed out character. Kathy Bates chews up the scenery with the same gusto she displayed in "Titanic." It's a skilled ensemble of players but no one seems to work very hard.
"Chéri" (rated R for some sexual content and brief drug use) offers a nice star turn for Michelle Pfeiffer but it doesn't capture or convey the richer and more varied textures of Colette's works. A more interesting but also flawed look at a similar sort of relationship can be found in "The Last Mistress," in which Asia Argento finds real passion and obsession in her performance.
Companion viewing: "The Last Mistress," "Dangerous Liaisons," "My Beautiful Launderette"