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Chéri

un film de Stephen Frears

There is a shot at the very end of Stephen Frears' Chéri, where Michelle Pfeiffer stares into the camera, not a discernible speck of make-up on the 50 year old actress's face. This final shot, before the credits roll, sums up all that this film could have been, if only Frears' wasn't afraid to take his characters to the brink and back - just as Colette had done almost 90 years ago. The film's poster tagline asks us to engage in a wicked game of seduction. If only Frears had the nerve to allow us to do so.

Based on the Colette novels, Chéri & The Last of Chéri and set in pre-World War I Paris, Frears has the great opportunity to delve into the biting, acerbic mannerisms of said Parisian society just as he and screenwriter Christopher Hampton had done so shrewdly with their eighteenth century-set Oscar-winning Dangerous Liaisons some 20 years ago. Unfortunately for us and for the actors (and for Colette who most likely is spinning around in her grave at Père Lachaise right now!) Frears chickens out and hands in instead, the blandest of period pieces. The giddy, subtle mastication that is Colette's novel(s) - where everyone has a hidden agenda and no one says what they really mean except in snide undercurrents - is barely visible here. Frears' assumption that Chéri is a romance and not a tragedy leads him into creating the most typical of typicalities. Enough to make even the most ultra-staid Merchant/Ivory seem wicked in comparison.

Sure, many filmmakers have altered a novel when transferring it to screen (it would be next to impossible to leave an entire book intact and still have a film that could be played in one sitting) but to miss the very essence of a story is nearly inexcusable. Yet that is exactly what Frears and Hampton do here. Where Colette wrote of an aging Parisian courtesan who hands over her young boy toy for the proper marriage that has been pre-arranged for him, Frears and Hampton twists their film into something akin to two long-lost lovers running at each other on the beach with a swell of cloying music behind them. Change the aforementioned beach to a lushly draped Parisian boudoir and that is what this latest version of Chéri ends up being.

In fact missed opportunities abound in Frears' movie. Well acted by both Rupert Friend as the titular Chéri and Pfeiffer as his aging paramour (though Kathy Bates is a shrill cartoon in her portrayal) it is Frears' lack of courage that is the real downfall of the film. Not only does he lose his nerve when it comes to the droll, yet scathing dialogue of Colette's characters (the writer said of her book, "For the first time in my life, I felt morally certain of having written a novel for which I need neither blush nor doubt.") but Frears stumbles at the perfect opportunity for showing how women in today's society - and especially those in Hollywood - are treated after a certain demarcation line of age. Though looking as gorgeous as ever (even maybe more lovely than ever) Pfeiffer would be the perfect subject to breach such a thesis, but instead Frears lumbers along oblivious to the whole theme of what Colette was writing.

Frears' most memorable films, Dangerous Liaisons, My Beautiful Launderette, Prick Up Your Ears, The Grifters and The Queen do all bear the weight of a certain amount of depth and quite a bit of underlying danger, but here the filmmaker falls flat flat flat. An admittedly pretty film (some scenes elicit memories of Monet and the impressionists) and with two strong, if quite cliche'd performances, but still a film that never goes anywhere and while not going anywhere tends to fall out of fashion even with itself. Add to all this the strangest "international" melange of accents (even among mother and son) and a completely unnecessary, and quite annoying series of haphazard narration, and you have Stephen Frears' Chéri. Even on its own, when not compared to the original novel(s), Frears' film fails on most levels.

Perhaps a French version (there were four other versions made previously, two French, one Brit and one Italian - none of which are available today) starring Isabelle Huppert and Louis Garrel, and directed by Catherine Breillat would have better suited Colette's story. Instead all we are left with is that haunting final image of Pfeiffer, aged or not, that only makes us wish Frears had allowed her to give us so much more. [07/18/09]

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