Monday, July 6, 2009

Review: Cheri

Yesterday--Sunday--I went to see the film Cheri. It was marvelous.

Directed by Stephen Frears, screenplay by Christopher Hampton from two novels by Colette, and starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathy Bates, and Rupert Friend, I have not been able to stop thinking about the film. Reviewers have been somewhat less than kind, seeing only the surface bubbles rather than the depth of character revealed by director and performers.

First of all, the film is beautifully shot. The sets, costumes, and entire look of it is gorgeous, evoking France's Belle Epoque in an absolutely authentic, meticulously researched, and stunningly replicated manner (damn, I want her bed!). For this alone, I loved it.

But there was more!

Frears is the director of The Queen, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Dirty Pretty Things, and High Fidelity, as well as one of my all-time favorite films, The Grifters. He must be brilliant with actors, given the performances he gets out of male and female performers alike. In this film, in Cheri, Michelle Pfeiffer really shows why she is a star and a fine actress--for which she's never gotten enough credit. As if "star" is completely exclusive of "actress."

The camera is unrelenting, clealy showing that Pfeiffer is 50+. And while she has taken such good care of herself that she remains radiant, she is, indeed, well within middle age.

And her lover, played by Rupert Friend, is less than half her age... in the script. Friend is actually 27, but he plays a character who ages from 19 to 25, and he is believable at that age. Friend is youthful, foxily bright-eyed and lean, stunningly gorgeous in his period clothing. He is pettish, spoiled, and sexy, surprisingly both comic and heartbreaking.

The film documents the love affair between Lea (Pfeiffer), a courtesan contemplating retirement, and Cheri, the son of her rival. In one of the first scenes, they kiss... and the love affair is on. After six years, Cheri's mother (Bates, in a brilliant character role) finds the perfect wife for Cheri, the virginal daughter of another rival; Cheri leaves Lea and marries the daughter, leaving both lovers miserable.

One of the elements I love about the film is that it doesn't attempt to justify the love of a 40-some year-old woman for a 20-some year-old boy. Hampton and Frears present scenes of the interaction and sexuality between Lea and Cheri, and that must be enough... and it is, especially when we see them with others, with Cheri's ridiculously needy, selfish wife, Lea's new young musclebound lover, Cheri's manipulative mother, and the circle of sadly aging courtesans with whom Lea passes her time.

Lea has surrounded herself with beauty and luxury: her houses, her clothing, and all the material objects she can buy. Giving up her business--not taking on any more "lovers"--means her time and bed are empty. She has no hobbies, no skills, no interests beyond her former employment... except Cheri, who is her great passion and her first, true love. Surprisingly, he engages her as she engages him emotionally, intellectually, and physically. When the lovers part for his marriage, we know it is a mistake.

When they part for reasons less easily overcome, it is unsettling in the deepest way, calling into question all our philosophy and prejudices about romantic love, sophisticated sexuality, men and women, and even, somehow, human purpose.

As in The Grifters, Frears plays on the deepest human relationships, love and fear, our vulnerabilities, and the manner in which we deceive ourselves and, simultaneously, relentlessly reveal our own truths. It seems he is fearless, and enables his actors and actresses to be equally fearless: the final shot of Pfeiffer staring at herself in her own mirror is stunning, and revealing, and terrifying.

In an age when comedy panders to 13-year-old boys' wet dreams, film in general panders to directors' limited "graphic novel" obsessions, and while romantic comedies pander to "chick lit" fantasies of boringly domesticated (and dull) Prince Charmings, Cheri suggests that salvation is located... somewhere else, somewhere less safe and far more challenging.

See it, and pay attention to the layers beneath the froth.


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