Tuesday, July 07, 2009

FILM: Chéri

Comparisons of Chéri to Dangerous Liaisons are inevitable, not only because both are French period pieces of romantic intrigue, but because it reunites three great talents in director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Mrs Henderson Presents), writer Christopher Hampton (Atonement, The Quiet American), and actress Michelle Pfeiffer. Though set in the turn-of-the-century twilight of French courtesans, rather than the height of Rococo excess, Chéri delivers sumptuous costumes, beautiful period sets, and displays of witty repartée. Michelle Pfeiffer is exquisite as Léa de Longval, a still-beautiful but nearing-retirement-age courtesan, who is in control of every social situation, except perhaps when she meets her match in the young playboy Chéri, played by Rupert Friend with utmost insouciant hedonism. Kathy Bates is (and has) great fun as Madame Peloux, friend and colleague of Léa and mother of Chéri. Alas, despite all it had going for it, the film never quite went anywhere. Léa and Chéri have a long listless affair, which ends when Chéri enters an arranged marriage. They're both miserably missing each other, which she attempts to shoulder with some grace while he makes no efforts to hide his feelings from his charming young wife who deserves better. Then in the end, we get a climactic scene which feels like it ought to be a denouement, except that the characters' motivations are muddled, and I'm at a loss to understand why they did what they did. The final scene, a prolonged close-up on Michelle Pfeiffer's face, is a self-conscious echo of the final scene of Dangerous Liaisons, but without the same punch, since the audience is thinking "huh?" instead of "oh!". Perhaps sensing the lack of satisfying finality, there's a voice-over post script letting us know what becomes of Chéri, but it's equally puzzling and unsatisfying. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Colette, and the voice-over tries to give us Colette's sequel, La Fin de Chéri, in a mere couple of lines, which hardly seems just. Maybe I should read the books to see if the character development makes more sense. At the end of this film, we had enjoyed the great performances and period setting, but it was no Dangerous Liaisons.

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