High Museum of Art: Films

Opening this Weekend by Linda Dubler

Review: Chéri by Stephen Frears
Opening June 26 at the Tara

The British director Stephen Frears makes entertainments for viewers who don’t assume that refinement and substance are mutually exclusive. He’s fascinated by the intrigues that accompany the exercise of power (think Dangerous Liasons and The Queen), and also by subcultures that exist parallel to the mainstream (like the con artists of The Grifters and the illegal immigrants of Dirty Pretty Things.) Both themes emerge in his latest work, Chéri, a gorgeous bauble of a movie that unfolds during the years before the First World War.

Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathy Bates

Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathy Bates

Based on a novel by Colette, it’s a love story set in the French demi-monde, where sophisticated beauties bestow sexual favors on titled gentlemen who pay (and pay and pay) for their attentions. When these ladies invest wisely, they end up like Charlotte (Kathy Bates) and Lea (Michelle Pfeiffer), women “of a certain age,” who have retired from active duty in the bedroom and now divide their time between their luxurious Parisian town houses and sprawling country estates. Charlotte is mother to the dissipated, charming and bored Fred, who was nicknamed Chéri by his godmother Lea.  At nineteen, Chéri (Rupert Friend) is debauched beyond his years, and his mother is fed up with his lassitude and lack of ambition. Her unlikely solution is to hand him over to Lea, childless and still ethereally lovely, who barely hestitates when Chéri signals his intentions by delivering a decidedly unfilial kiss.

In current parlance, I suppose you’d call Lea a cougar, but Chéri is the one who does the pursuing, and the languid, tender, and erotic bond between them seems utterly free of desperation. Chéri, the son of a prostitute, understands and embraces Lea, who like her peers is ostracized from polite society. His love helps her deny her fading beauty and allows her to hold on to the illusion that time is standing still. And time stands still for Chéri too;  swaddled in Lea’s motherly care, their quasi-incestuous relationship stalls his passage into manhood. Their idyll lasts six years, until Charlotte decides that her pampered boy needs to settle down, marry, and give her some grandchildren. Chéri complies, fulfilling Lea’s jaded view of him: “I can’t criticize his character because he doesn’t seem to have one.”

Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Friend

Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Friend

What makes Chéri fascinating is the way that Frears fleshes out a world in which Christian morality seems irrelevant, but the rules of the game — the machinations of propriety and convention, hold sway. It’s a world untouched by poverty or disease (venereal or otherwise), where the ugliest thing one encounters is Charlotte’s grotesque gold morning gown and matching bonnet. The art direction, with its sinuous Art Nouveau decors and elegantly draped costumes, is exquisite; Bates looks suitably toad-like in corseted, jet-beaded gowns while Pfeiffer is as slim and delicate as a dragonfly. Friend, with his jutting cheekbones and skin the blue-white of a calendar-art snow scene, is perfectly cast as the callow, ultimately tragic Chéri. But the film belongs to its female stars. Bates masks a scheming intelligence with simpering and pleasantries.  Pfeiffer combines both restraint and carnality, worldliness and vulnerabilty. Her Lea is a woman who is too proud to beg, and whose response to pity would be a withering glance.

Linda Dubler

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