Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

06 July 2009

Pfeiffer Plays Courtesan

Stephen Frears' Chéri is an uneven romance set in Paris during the Belle Époque. The movie stars Michelle Pfeiffer as the courtesan Léa, Rupert Friend as her lover Fred (whose nickname Chéri provides the film with its title), as well as Kathy Bates and Harriet Walter. The film is based on two books by French novelist Colette.

I'll get right to it. The film doesn't work from the get-go and then continues unevenly for most of its remaining running time. I am calling Chéri uneven because it constantly aspires to be a better film than it is, and those flashes of hope appear every once in a while, making believe that underneath this film a really good movie was just waiting to come out. The writing is occasionally very clever, but more often than not it feels stilted and even awkward.

The acting doesn't always work either. Rupert Friend is very pretty, and that is his main job in the film (looking pretty is the character's primary vocation, as well), but his concept of the character is dour and moody, which left me constantly wishing he would crack a smile or give a wink every once in a while. The trouble here is that the audience needed to fall in love with Chéri, but instead we just wonder what he's thinking about that makes him so unhappy. We worry for him instead of adoring him. I wish Rupert Friend had taken a slightly more light-hearted approach. I understand that having everything that one wants in the world can be a little depressing, but it is certainly enjoyable on occasion, and, after all, a young man in love ought to at the very least get a modicum of pleasure out of the object of his affection.

The production design is kind of a mess, too. The costumes are beautiful, but the film is in the lower-budget range and, unfortunately, looks it. There are only about four exterior sequences and Paris looks very empty. Perhaps it seems distasteful to gripe about this, but much of the pleasure of a period piece, I think, is derived from viewing a series of ridiculously gorgeous costumes and eye-popping set pieces. Chéri's producers cannot really deliver on this, and the film suffers as a consequence.

Okay, I am saying a lot of bad things and I want to move on to the reason why this film—despite these problems—is going to be so high on my 2009 list.

Chéri's ending is superb. It's an awesome, bold, fantastic ending for this film. The end of the movie is so good that the more I think about Chéri the more I like it. I can't get the film's last minutes out of my head. I am not going to spoil it, but the finale somehow makes everything that led up to it worthwhile and sensible. An example of this is the voiceover narration that takes over at a couple of points in the movie. I found this slightly irksome during the picture itself, but the masterful ending needs the narration to work as well as it does, and so it justifies its use earlier in the picture.

Anyway, Chéri, to sum up, doesn't really work. And then it works. Really well.