May 9, 2009

Cheri [15]

Dir: Stephen Frears
Chéri has a fantastic pedigree.  It reunites the core creative team behind the excellent Dangerous Liaisons; Director Stephen Frears, screenwriter Christopher Hampton and actress Michelle Pfeiffer. Sadly the film is decidedly less than the sum of these fine parts.

Based on a pair of novels by Colette the film tells the story of a relationship between Lea (Michelle Pfeiffer), an aging courtesan and Chéri (Rupert Friend) the young son of a fellow courtesan which, after six years, is interrupted by the fact that Chéri’s mother (Kathy Bates) has arranged for him to be married. It’s a simple enough tale but the film never comes together, because neither Christopher Hampton’s screenplay nor the performances of Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend give us anything to care about. The film seems so concerned with surfaces (all the people and settings are stunningly beautiful) that it never gets under the skins of its characters.  This is a real problem, because we never feel the longing that Lea and Chéri supposedly have for one another. In order to work, a love story has to be emotionally engaging, and this one simply isn’t.

Stunning as the film looks that too is merely skin deep, because a lot of Frears’ staging is rather dull. It’s a very static film, with endless scenes of two people exchanging badly written banalities while sitting in rooms that are more diverting than the story, or lying in bed amid artfully messed up sheets. It’s all so completely fake that it actively discourages you from engaging with the film.

Though the cast, given Hampton’s stiff dialogue, have little to work with Frears has a pretty distinguished cast at his disposal, and he really should have been able to draw something of worth from them. Rupert Friend is an extremely handsome man; he looks as if he was carved, designed as a matinee idol. Sadly he also acts this way - he’s so wooden you could turn him into a chair.  Watching him attempt to emote is like watching a robot discover a hitherto unknown thing called happiness, or anger. He’s one of the blankest leads I’ve seen in a movie for some time, and listening to his clipped monotone drove me up the wall. If Friend is doing too little he’s certainly the only cast member guilty of that offence. Everyone else plays up to the films tone of outrageous camp. Kathy Bates is especially dreadful, mowing down all scenery in her path, making every single line a ridiculous production number, while Felicity Jones, pretty as a picture though she is, is so bad in her one big emotional scene that I had to stifle my laughter.

This is all disappointing, but not half so disappointing as Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance. I love Pfeiffer, I’ve always thought her a fine actress, and an underrated one, and I missed her during her five years away from the screen. This is her big comeback though; her first lead in a long while, and it saddens me to say that I've never seen her - Grease 2 apart - be worse. It’s not entirely her fault; she’s terribly miscast because she’s still so youthful and so beautiful that, despite Frears often shooting her to look older than she usually does, it’s completely unconvincing when she describes herself as aging, or losing her looks. Still, the performance is poor, her American accent an odd fit when everyone else (though the film is set in France) is doing a clipped British, and her acting being by turns so distant as to be completely free of emotion and so overblown as to be irritating.

Chéri is a picture postcard. It’s very beautiful, but completely devoid of substance. It’s uninvolving, unfunny and unemotional, skip it, and instead rent Francois Ozon’s Angel.

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