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Stephen Frears has made some impeccably gritty crime films (The Hit, The Grifters, Dirty Pretty Things) and at least one classy period picture in Dangerous Liasions. His latest effort Chéri adapts two books by Colette about the lives and high style of a clutch of wealthy courtesans in the supposedly glorious Parisian days just before World War One. Although sumptuously designed and costumed -- all the good comment on this film seems aimed at its clothes and furniture -- the movie never catches fire.
There's been much discussion of star Michelle Pfeiffer not "fitting" the period, the same kind of meaningless criticism leveled at Pfeiffer on Scorsese's The Age of Innocence in 1993. I don't think either rap is deserved. The problem with Chéri can be summed up as an adaptation issue. Director Frears narrates a vision of a handsome young man as seen through the eyes of his older lover. No matter what the poetic words say, all that the screen can show is a pretty picture of a narcissistic man leaning on a doorway at the entrance to a colorful garden. If anything, the narration detracts from what fails to impress us as a vision of absolute beauty. No cinematic link is made to the viewer's rapture; we don't identify with the older woman's point of view.
Chéri is lavishly mounted and well acted but we're almost too busy watching the décor to pay attention to the story. How are these amazing houses kept clean without a staff of ten? Is every day for these women a dawn 'til dusk glossy travelogue postcard?
Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a successful courtesan nearing the last few years of youthful beauty; she's beginning to spend more time with her retired associates, fabulously wealthy "fallen women" (and an occasional man). They gravitate toward one another because they are not presentable in respectable society. Celebrities of café society, they set fashion styles but remain rather isolated. Lea begins a hot romance with Chéri, (Rupert Friend) the son of a close associate, Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates). Their blissful relationship continues for years. A terrible busybody and meddler, Madame Peroux is delighted to marry her son off to Edmee (Felicity Jones). For his part, Chéri considers the entire arrangement a bore. He'd much rather continue as Lea's pampered lapdog-lover. Lea puts herself through the necessary adjustments to let Chéri go, only to realize too late that he is the love of her life. The selfish and abusive Chéri wavers between both women but is incapable of making a hard decision, as he's never had to face the slightest real responsibility.
Chéri is performed in English, which becomes a handicap now that we're finally accustomed to seeing films about foreigners, played by native speakers in their own language. Success in todays dismal mainstream market requires a film to be in English, which may account for the tempered reaction to a superior picture like Verhoeven's Black Book, which was filmed in Dutch and German. Chéri is in the same boat as Love in the Time of Cholera, a prestigious production that might have been taken seriously if filmed in Spanish. The worst example I can think of is 2000's Chocolat, a fake art film about a fake France with English and American actors pretending to be cute rural Frenchmen. Chéri is nowhere near as bad as that. Michelle Pfeiffer and Kathy Bates do their best with the slightly stylized dialogue but still come off as Yankees pretending to be Parisians. Curiously, the Minnelli musical of Colette's Gigi is in English, but doesn't raise the same objection. Most of its stars carry an authentic French flavor.
More troubling is the fact that the characters in Chéri aren't the least bit likeable. Chéri himself is so odious that the only way we'd fully respect Lea is if she did a Bette Davis on him with a loaded gun. The story's main theme turns on the notion that Lea, after a lifetime of controlled relationships, finally loses her heart and learns what it is like to be vulnerable. This shouldn't be a major problem, but it is. It's like Donald Trump suddenly realizing that he just wants a quiet house with a white picket fence. Who cares?
Although Frears identifies his blissfully amoral courtesans as whores right at the start, they just seem a more self-obsessed class of bourgeois tradespeople. Madame Peroux and her cronies speak of nothing except the fabulous gifts given them by ardent customers -- heads of state, royalty, millionaires. As decadence goes, they're up near the front of the line. As interesting as it may be to contemplate an existence where one can devote one's self to the cultured pursuit of personal pleasure, it's not exactly a noble ambition. Lea de Lonval carries herself with a certain veneer of dignity, but her position depends on the continuance of an antiquated social structure. We can see how an upheaval like the First World War might blow this decadent crowd away like dust.
Frear's production people have done an impressive job giving Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend a lived-in look of luxury. It must take them hours to wander around bedrooms finding their clothes. But Chéri remains a film to look at, not to feel.
Miramax's DVD of Chéri is something of a surprise as well -- its beautiful images are not given the encoding they deserve. It looks almost like a temp transfer for Academy consideration. Image definition is not good. Dark areas of the screen are mildly posterized, especially during fade transitions. No Blu-ray release of this prestigious film seems to have been announced as yet; perhaps they're waiting to see if the film garners any Oscar nominations.
The deleted scenes are so brief as to not merit inclusion. The mostly promotional "making of" featurette affords some interesting on-set views and welcome input from the art department.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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