Friday, August 23, 2013

Neglected Gem #46: Chéri (2009)

Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend in Chéri

Brilliantly directed, ravishing to look at, and built around a stunning performance by Michelle Pfeiffer, Stephen Frears’s film of Chéri ought to have grabbed some attention in the midst of all the blockbusters the critics hadn’t been enthusing over in the summer of 2009, but it didn’t. Frears works from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton – his collaborator on his only previous period picture, 1989’s Dangerous Liaisons. The setting is once again France but the period is la belle époque, the years just before the First World War, perhaps the last era that still seems charmingly remote and pre-modern to us. The source is mostly Colette’s 1920 novel about a love affair between Léa, a cocotte nearing fifty and a young man half her age, nicknamed Chéri, the illegitimate son of an old friend from the Paris demi-monde. There’s an obscure 1950 French film of the material, and Kim Stanley played Léa in a Broadway adaptation back in 1959, so the story should be brand-new to audiences discovering it on DVD.

I don’t think people read Colette much anymore, and though much of her work has wound up on the screen – the French director Jacqueline Audry made films of Mitsou and Gigi, as well as filming Colette’s screenplay Pit of Loneliness (or Olivia, as it was called in France) – the only Colette-derived movie that even film buffs are likely to have encountered is the 1958 Vincente Minelli version of Gigi, with its storybook Cecil Beaton gowns and the witty, infectious Lerner-Loewe songs. If that’s your only experience of her, the Chéri books may come as something of a shock. Her style is heady and sensuous but not lush, and she can be as piercingly honest about sexual feelings as Edna O’Brien. Here’s the passage that describes the moment when the relationship suddenly changes between nineteen-year-old Chéi and Léa, who has known him all his life and whom he still refers to by his childhood name for her, Nounoune:
Her kiss was such that they reeled apart, drunk, deaf, breathless, trembling as if they had just been fighting. She stood up again in front of him, but he did not move from the depths of his chair, and she taunted him under her breath, “Well? . . . Well?” and waited for an insult. Instead, he held out his arms, opened his vague beautiful hands, tilted his head back as if he had been struck, and let her see beneath each eyelash the glint of a shining tear. He babbled indeterminate words – a whole animal chant of desire, in which she could distinguish her name – “darling” – “I want you” – “I’ll never leave you” – a song to which she listened, solicitous, leaning over him, as if unwittingly she had hurt him to the quick.
From the outset their coupling carries the seed of its own destruction; the age discrepancy is bound to get them both in the end. So her sexual surrender to him is phrased in this way:
Nevertheless, she anticipated with a sort of terror the moment of her own undoing; she endured Chéri as she might a torture, warding him off with strengthless hands, and holding him fast between strong knees. Finally, she seized him by the arm, uttered a feeble cry and foundered in the deep abyss, whence love emerges pale and in silence, regretful of death.
Pfeiffer and Kathy Bates
For Colette, all romance carries its own doom inside it, and perhaps she wanted to use Léa and Chéri’s ill-fated one as a metaphor for that idea. Their relationship is never intended to last. What turns their story from high comedy to tragedy is that when, after six years, his mother Charlotte marries him off to Edmée, the daughter of another old friend – a virgin who’s the age Chéri (or Fred, as she knows him) was when he began to live with Léa – both Léa and Chéri realize, separately and with amazement, that what they feel for each other is true love. And there’s nothing they can do about it. When they try to resurrect their affair, he discovers that it keeps him from growing into manhood and she understands that the age difference they’ve never taken seriously – because they treated their love so lightly – is suddenly an obstacle to happiness they never anticipated enjoying.

Chéri is such an affecting little novel (it’s slightly over 150 pages) that if you know it, you may be discombobulated by the movie’s opening cheeky voice-over narration, which shapes the story as if it were an ironic fable, and by the sprightly approach Frears and Hampton take to the opening scenes, where Léa and Chéri (Rupert Friend) banter and Charlotte (Kathy Bates) takes malicious pleasure in throwing his engagement to Edmée (Felicity Jones) in Léa’s face. But the dialogue, here and through most of the film, is straight out of Colette, and it has the glitter of self-awareness. With supreme high-comic canniness, Frears balances it against the cream-and-pastel sets, which are almost playful in their sumptuousness (Alan MacDonald designed them), and the breathtaking peacock costumes (by Consolate Boyle), which evoke the zenith of a world that we know is coming to an end. (Much of the credit for the film’s beautiful look belongs to the cinematographer, Darius Khondji.) Yet at first we don’t think in those terms. When Michelle Pfeiffer arrives at Charlotte’s for tea wrapped up in silk, her exquisite face coyly veiled, slipping closer to her hostess and the other guests in a heat-wave shimmer, we’re irresistibly tickled at the picture of delicious feminine charm that seems to have cheated time. The movie seems primed for Léa’s triumph, either over Edmée, who has neither her courtesan’s skills nor her impeccable taste, or over the disappointment of losing Chéri to a young wife. But Frears is a master of tone – think of My Beautiful Laundrette, The Grifters and The Queen, not mention Dangerous Liaisons – and the movie grows melancholy before we see the shift coming.

The movie is about the surprise of love – of learning that’s what you’ve been feeling just at the moment when it’s taken from you. And we experience the movie as a constantly unfolding surprise. We don’t expect Léa to be so sympathetic to her rival (she exhorts Chéri to treat Edmée kindly), and we certainly don’t expect Edmée to turn out to be so interesting (Jones gives a fine little performance), or to fall so completely in love with her husband, whose coldness to her after sex because she isn’t Léa cuts to the quick. Friend’s performance deepens as Chéri recognizes that his feelings for Léa aren’t superficial, that he isn’t superficial, though his first response is angry restlessness that comes across as a fit of pique. He moves to a hotel, then just as abruptly he moves back in with his wife. Meanwhile Léa has chosen to handle her disappointment by refusing to acknowledge it publicly; she pretends to have found a new lover to silence her friends’ pity and then travels to Biarritz, where she locates one, an inexperienced young man traveling with his mother. (This incident is one of Hampton’s few additions to Colette’s plot.) But he bores her, and when she learns of Fred and Edmée’s separation she returns to Paris, only to be visited within a few hours by Charlotte, crowing that her son has returned to his wife and all is once more well with the world. Pfeiffer is extraordinary in this exchange, greeting her old friend with perfect poise while her devastation shows in the delicate hollows of her face. It’s not the first time we see her freeze in an attitude of calm while she allows her emotions to form barely perceptible droplets on her face like pearls of dew; that’s what she does earlier, too, when Charlotte announces her son’s impending marriage. (He was too much of a coward to tell her about it himself, though his excuse is that Charlotte wanted to do it – and no doubt that’s also true.)

Pfeiffer is amazing in scene after scene – when, for example, she confides in her maid, Rose (Frances Tomelty), after she’s come back from Biarritz, that she thought she saw Chéri three times in the street that afternoon. (Frears and Hampton expand the camaraderie between mistress and servant, a new wrinkle that enhances the movie.) And in the climactic section where Chéri bursts into his old lover’s house late one night and they briefly rekindle their affair, only to see it vanish the next morning, Pfeiffer does perhaps the best work of her career: you might be watching one of the queens of 1930s Hollywood, Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn or Barbara Stanwyck, hitting one of her classic peaks. Pfeiffer hadn’t had a role like this in years. You can just imagine how grateful she must have been to Hampton for lines like “Thirty years of easy living do make you vulnerable.”

On the other hand, Kathy Bates doesn’t have the brittle quality her dialogue requires; she hits a put-down (to Léa) like “Don’t you find that when the skin is less firm, it holds perfume so much better?” as if she were wielding a ball peen hammer. She’s terribly miscast, and the scenes with the old cocottes (played by Anita Pallenberg, Harriet Walter and others, with Eben Hjejle as Edmée’s mother Marie-Laure) are rather grotesque. They’re the only ones in which the tone slips out of Frears’s grasp.

At the end, the filmmakers spring their ultimate surprise. After rendering the final scene in Colette’s novel in almost every detail – Léa’s sending Chéri back to his wife, her momentary joy when it looks like he’s going to turn around and walk back into her house, and his relief, “like a man escaping from prison” – the narrator flashes forward to The Last of Chéri, summarizing it in a sentence or two and finishing off the young man’s story by letting us in on the fate Colette planned for him. It’s a jolt, and the movie doesn’t pile any other emotion on top of it; Frears sails immediately into the credits, behind Alexandre Desplat’s courtly music. This is a daring risk, and it comes off magnificently.

 Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment