Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Movie Review: Cheri

Cheri **
Directed By:
Stephen Frears.
Written By: Christopher Hampton based on the novels by Colette.
Starring: Michelle Pfeiffer (Lea de Lonval), Kathy Bates (Madame Peloux), Rupert Friend (Cheri), Felicity Jones (Edmee), Frances Tomelty (Rose), Anita Pallenberg (La Copine), Harriet Walter (La Loupiote), Iben Hjejle (Marie Laure).

Stephen Frear’s Cheri should be an enjoyable little romp of a film, but instead it’s a rather depressing experience. It is a film in which Michelle Pfeiffer plays Lea de Lonval, an aging courtesan in 1800s France, who takes on a much younger lover, who she dubs Cheri (Rupert Friend), and against her better judgment actually falls in love with him. When, after six years, Cheri’s mother (Kathy Bates), a retired colleague of Lea’s, and one of her best friends, decides that Cheri has had enough time fooling around, she arranges a marriage for him, devastating both Lea and Cheri.

The film is one of those costume dramas/comedies, in which people sit around in opulent splendor, trading barbed remarks under the guise of friendliness, but is really meant to cut to the bone. I’m not sure anyone in this film actually likes any of the other characters – except for Lea and Cheri of course – but they continue to get together out of force of habit, and because it seems like no one else is willing to spend time with them. Every conversation is calculated to inflict the most amount of damage on the other person, all the while the characters claim to only to be thinking of each other’s well being.

The film has a number of problems with it, that prevented me from enjoying it all that much. For one thing, the scenes in the film do not seem to play out naturally. Some are over just when they seem to be warming up, and others drag on well past the point of relevance. For a film that is short – just under 90 minutes – you would think that they could at least fill the scenes out properly. But the even more serious problem in the film is that we never really feel any connection between Lea and Cheri. They are characters who are constantly required to play a role in public, yet even in their private scenes they seem to be doing the same thing. You never feel the sexual attraction between the two of them, or even the more tender feelings of love. Cheri is such a little prick, you can’t help but wonder why any woman would love him at all – especially someone with Lea’s experience. The rest of the cast is given not much to do at all. At least Kathy Bates seems to be having fun playing a bitch as Cheri’s mother, but poor, beautiful Felicity Jones as Edme, the girl who gets stuck with Cheri as a husband, is given nothing to do at all.

Watching the film, I was reminded of two other, much better films. The first was Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, which is broad strokes seems similar to Cheri. A man (Daniel Day Lewis) is stuck marrying the prime and proper girl (Winona Ryder), when he really wants the more exciting woman (Pfeiffer). That movie proved that Pfeiffer can play this type of role to perfection – a role where feelings must remain buried under the surface, and yet Pfieffer’s performance was so delicate and perfect in that film, you always knew how she felt. The same was true of Daniel Day Lewis and Winona Ryder. The other film was last year’s The Last Mistress by Catherine Breilliant, where a young man marries the proper girl again, but cannot give up his lover, the sexually exciting Asia Argento. That was a film where the sexual chemistry between the leads felt real – where you could tell why he could not give up his mistress – she had a sexual pull over him he could not control. But the relationship in Cheri between Pfeiffer and Friend feels almost chaste. You do not understand why these two cannot give each other up.

It must be said that the movie is not really as terrible as I have made it sound, it’s just that it isn’t really good either. I liked Pfieffer, even if I didn’t quite believe her in the role, but I think that’s more the fault of Christopher Hampton’s screenplay then hers. The costume and the sets are also delightful, but you know you’re in trouble when you spend part of a review talking about them in the first place, and not the story. One final flaw I feel I need to bring up though is the ending. Why after a movie where little of consequence actually happened, did we need a voiceover telling us the most dramatic aspects of the story? I think it’s because what is described in that voiceover would have required actual human emotions to be played out on screen – something this movie never really does.

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