Saturday, May 09, 2009

CHERI - luscious frou-frou with too sporadic flashes of psychological insight

Stephen Frears is an uneven director. Occasionally he makes devastating, gritty dramas chronicling the savagery of life and love, viz. DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDERETTE. But most of the time, he makes luscious costume dramas that skate delicately over deeper, unexplored issues, and seem primarily conceived for the heritage industry. They are the cinematic equivalent of those cheap tea-towels and mugs you can buy near Marble Arch and on Piccadilly, embossed with pictures of Princess Diana. In this category, I place works like MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS and THE QUEEN. Very rarely, Frears directs a movie that combines luscious cinematography and costumes with real psychological weight, viz. DANGEROUS LIASONS. So where does CHERI fit into this typography? Sadly, mostly in the luscious frou-frou category, although there are flashes of psychological insight in the final scenes.

Based on the novels by French author, Colette, CHERI chronicles the affair between a middle-aged high-class courtesan, Lea, and a twenty-year old bored fop, Cheri. They live together for six years, up-ending conventional social mores. She pays for and keeps him, organises everything, and takes the dominant role. He is the kept woman. The affair ends when his spiteful mother, a former rival of his lover, arranges his marriage to a wealthy young girl. Lea is gracious and lets him go, even, in extremis, giving him the moral courage to make a life with his wife, knowing that, in her old age, she cannot keep him. But, for both of them, this pragmatic decision will prove a moral disaster - because they really were in love.

The resulting film is beautiful to behold, the costumes, locations and colour schemes speak of luxury, indulgence, over-ripe summers and a true belle-epoque. Alexandre Desplat's score is similarly delicious. One would never tell that the characters were living on the verge of the First World War and in a time of increasingly radical politics. Michelle Pfeiffer looks lovely as Lea, and perfectly captures the fact that a well-preserved fifty-year old can look ravishing but can also, in unforgiving light, look gaunt and care-worn. The final scene, where she coolly appraises her lined face in a mirror, is chilling and touching. Every woman can relate. Rupert Friend is similarly well-cast as Cheri. He is similarly beautiful and captures the cynicism of a dandy who is bored with the champagne life but also too lazy and vapid to commit to anything more profound. He does a tremendously good job of making a superficial character likeable. The supporting characters are also well-cast with the exception of Kathy Bates - a brilliant actress but just not convincing as an ageing former beauty and about 10 years too old for the role.

The substantial problem with the movie is that it skates over the deeper psychological insights of the novel - the torment is too tepid - and makes nothing of the characters' isolated self-absorption as a grand metaphor for the society that would be swept away by the war. Stylistically, there was too much exposition, largely in the form of a clumsy voice-over narration from Frears himself. It seemed to hint at the style of JULES AND JIM but was clumsy, unnecessary and its trite tone undercut the emotional heft of the story.

CHERI played Berlin 2009 and is currently on release in the UK, Belgium and France. It opens in the Netherlands and the USA on June 26th and in Germany on August 27th. It opens in Finland on September 11th, in Norway on October 2nd, in Portugal on October 8th, in Russia on October 15th and in Spain on November 6th.

No comments:

Post a Comment