I expected – or at any rate hoped for – a lot from Chéri, another of the costume dramas I’ve seen in the last few weeks, when it appeared all too briefly at a local cinema. It’s something of a Dangerous Liaisons reunion, with the same director, Stephen Frears, screenwriter, Christopher Hampton, and star, Michelle Pfeiffer.
Although I’d seen some bad reviews, I remembered that historical dramas often seem to get a bad press, and still hoped for the best. As a costume drama fan, I did quite enjoy it, but I was disappointed all the same. To me, this film is nowhere near the standard of Dangerous Liaisons – the costumes are sumptuous, the settings breathtaking, but the script is just not in the same league.
This movie is based on two novels by Colette, Chéri and The Last of Chéri .(I’ve read that the second novel is summed up in the last couple of lines of voiceover.) I haven’t read either of the books, so can’t say how close it is to them, but, as a drama in its own right, it feels rather thin.
The story centres on a small group of retired courtesans living in 1920s Paris. Fred, nicknamed Chéri (Rupert Friend), the beautiful son of one of the courtesans, Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates ) is only a teenager, but already world-weary and dissipated. His mother shares her concerns with another courtesan, Lea (Pfeiffer), whose solution is to adopt Chéri as her young lover and take him to the country for a rest.
His mother is happy enough with this, but not so thrilled when the couple are still involved six years later. She decides to marry Fred off to Edmée (Felicity Jones), the daughter of yet another of her retired colleagues, Marie Laure (Iben Hjelje) – but he finds it difficult to wrest himself away from his love for the older woman, Lea.
All this sounds like an intriguing emotional cocktail, and yet, even with Harriet Walter among the supporting cast, it doesn’t really work on screen. My feeling is that there just aren’t enough proper conversations. Not everything can be done with a terse phrase and a burning glance. There’s never much sense given of what depth there is to Chéri’s relationship with either woman. His romance with Lea is seen beginning – then it’s six years later and we are at the end, without much sense of what went in between. If anything, his relationship with Edmée is even more sketchy. I found myself remembering an old 1970s adaptation of Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias, starring Peter Firth and Kate Nelligan (this is one I wish someone would release on DVD!), and feeling that in this film the relationship between the aging courtesan and the young lover is far less moving.
There are also few real conversations between the retired courtesans , and no serious sense given of what their work has cost them. It doesn’t help matters that Frears has decided to do the voiceover for his own film, in effect telling the audience what to think.
Usually I like voiceovers in historical dramas, and I’m aware that here he has deliberately made the choice to use lines from Colette as narrator, rather than clumsily putting them into the mouths of the characters. However, my feeling is that there’s far too much narration, often with the effect of interrupting or undermining the actors. If Chéri is upset in a particular scene, then surely Rupert Friend’s expression can put that across without the need for Frears as narrator to tell us what we have just seen – almost like watching a film with the director’s commentary .
Although I felt this really wasn’t a very successful film, I still enjoyed it because of the beauty of the costumes and settings – and also because of the quality of the actors. Rupert Friend, so good as serious, brooding Albert in The Young Victoria, is here equally good, and almost unrecognisable, as the languid, self-pitying Chéri. Michelle Pfeiffer is equally compelling as Lea, a tired, cynical character in stark contrast with the ingenue she played in Dangerous Liaisons. There is plenty of chemistry between these two unlikely lovers in their bedroom scenes together – but I just wish the rest of the film lived up to these powerful sequences.