Thursday, September 17, 2009
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Friend, Kathy Bates
Felicity Jones, Frances Tomelty
It's become almost a standard of sorts for maturing actresses to eventually play a character that deals with aging.
Michelle Pfeiffer is no exception; in "Chéri" she plays Parisian courtesan Lea de Lonval who is contemplating retirement until she takes on one last mission of sorts.
Her frenemy, and former colleague Charlotte (Bates) asks her to take on her 19-year-old son, the title Chéri (Friend) and seduce him to make his decadent lifestyle stop.
Thinking this will be like stealing candy from a child, Lea suddenly finds herself six years later still having an affair with the young man and, gasp, falling in love with him.
The difference about Pfeiffer, regarding other actresses in similar roles, is that she's exceptionally radiant. At 51, she looks as breathtaking as she did in the 80's, her goddess like bone structure only serving to highlight the, socially contradictory, fact that for all her beauty she's never stopped being a phenomenal actress.
She takes on Lea ferociously, but escapes all nasty "cougar" clichés by embracing her physical qualities but merely using them as the stage for the stirring emotions within her character.
Uttering lines with acidic contempt (from the Christopher Hampton adaptation of a couple of Colette novels) she's utmostly delicious.
"It's her turn now, mine is over" she declares coldly to Chéri when he announces his mother has arranged a marriage for him.
But Pfeiffer's strengths don't lie in her line delivery but in the quieter moments when we find her all by herself (the last scene has a hauntingly beautiful quality that's practically a love song to the actress).
Bates is at her scenery-chewing best, her exchanges with Lea give the film all the social subtext director Frears wants us to understand from the bélle epoque.
The only thing these women have in common, besides their profession, is their dislike for each other.
Friend is also rather good, giving Chéri decadent qualities worthy of disdain and admiration, plus his chemistry with Pfeiffer is delightful.
What keeps the movie from transcending to another level is the mishandled way Frears tries to wrap up everything in the end. The movie has an uneven trajectory during which it tries to fit into several genres, coming up with something that lacks the punch for any of them.
While the art nouveau inspired art direction and costumes are a sight to behold, Frears has a hard time relating to them (despite his effective, if a bit forced narration).
The director never plunges into the mind set of his characters and sometimes they come off looking as actors in a play aware of the audience and expecting their acceptance.
Lucky for Frears he had Pfeiffer, who not only never suffers from this, but finding what lies in Lea's heart achieves a kind of divine humanity.