Friday, 8 May 2009

Film Review: Chéri

Imagine a world in which you have servants to run your bath; you have a wardrobe which no shopping spree could ever hope to improve on and a home that even the upper class would lust after, and you’re imagining the life of a retired Parisian courtesan in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Adapted by Oscar winning screenwriter, Christopher Hampton (Atonement, Dangerous Liaisons), from a novella by the late French novelist, Colette, Chéri tells the story of a love affair between an ageing courtesan beauty, Léa (Michelle Pfeiffer) and the title character, Chéri (Rupert Friend), the son of a competitive and interfering ex-colleague, Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates).

Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Dangerous Liaisons) presents us with a visual array of colour. The camera takes us on a smooth and seductive tour of 1920s Paris with clothes and architecture to die for. Despite the setting, Frears does not bombard us with the stereotypical shots of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe to remind its audience where this is set. Instead we periodically go for drinks at Maxims or get a passing shot of the Seine.

Chéri is a pre-World War I Pete Doherty. The music scene aside, the pale skin, dark features, excessive alcohol consumption and drug use along with his skin and bone appearance is somehow completely alluring to beautiful women, in this case the (getting close to past it) Léa. His almost gothic appearance leads you to wonder if he’s just stepped out of one of Tim Burton’s dressing rooms. Raised without a father and surrounded by beautiful women and their accessories, Chéri has a pertinent attraction towards feminine material items. He wears silk pants and has an obsession with pearls and despite Léa’s attempts to convince him of ‘something more masculine’ there is no male figure to guide him. It’s quite a contrast to see Friend play such a feminine and dark character in comparison with his recent amicable performance as Prince Albert in The Young Victoria. We will be seeing more of him no doubt and his re-emergence in period drama draws a likeness with the quick rising talent of James McAvoy.

Have Pfeiffer’s eyes always been so blue? Despite the title of the film, it is Pfeiffer that steals the limelight. In her first liaison with Frears since the Dangerous one of 1988, her performance is outstanding and the closing shot of the film, which I won't spoil, reaffirms her status as one of cinema’s leading ladies. Undoubtedly aided by her magnificent costumes, her appearance is mesmerising and many a character are drawn to her looks. Others remain green with envy.

Kathy Bates, as always it seems, plays the maternal figure. Suitably annoying and perhaps the film’s main antagonist, if there is one, Bates portrays the rivalry between the courtesans superbly. Chéri’s virginal bride, Edmée (Felicity Jones) was cleverly cast and is the perfect Blousey Brown character suitably envious of Lea’s Tallulah beauty.

Frear’s uncredited narration is reminiscent of that in Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona. Used with success at the beginning and end of the film, it occasionally reappears like the voice of someone sat behind you in the cinema, talking in your ear, making you jump as you had forgotten that they were still there.

As you might expect in a world where the women know nothing but how to pleasure the opposite sex, Frears presents us with numerous love scenes, some more alluring that others. Oysters, despite their notorious aphrodisiac qualities, have never been such a turn off.

The costumes are as delectable as one would have hoped. The use of colour is well thought out reminding me of Vivien Leigh’s dramatic colour changes in Gone with the Wind to reflect shades of character. On Chéri’s first departure, Léa purchases a green emerald ring - the ultimate symbol of jealousy. However, on Chéri’s return the tables are turned and he assumes the ring to be from a new lover transforming him into the green eyed monster.

The script is witty; the score–performed by The London Symphony Orchestra–is quirky, cheeky even seductive but disappointingly the ultimate draw of the period drama– romance – is lacking. Despite their performances and the undeniable chemistry between Friend and Pfeiffer there is no heart pounding realisations of true love in this film and sadly this will not meet the majority of audience’s romantic expectations.

Joey Beard

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