Friday, 11 September 2009

Chéri: A Satire...A Comedy...

I hate addressing the reviews of others when I write my own, especially when they are of recent films. Generally I ignore reviews for films I haven’t seen unless their really old. Not only for the potential spoiler factor, but because I really don’t care to have anybody influence how I feel about a film initially. Alas, it could not be so with Chéri. Of course the reviews for this were not as ubiquitous as others, but they were plentiful. And in a way I suppose the reviews influenced me. Just not in the way you’d expect.
Perhaps, because so many had referred to it as vacuous bauble despite initial high expectations I was somewhat sobered when I saw this. And it was a good experience. Chéri tells the story of Lea de Lonval, a courtesan who is nearing that certain age. Her former rival Madame Peloux has a roguish son, Chéri, who she wants put in hand. Madame Peloux does not exactly say to Lea, fix him, but it’s understood. Lea will train Chéri and keep him out of trouble, while footing the bill. Six years pass in a flash and the two are still comfortable with the arrangement. There isn’t quite any emotional investment – particularly on the part of Chéri. But they're happy as they are. "I can’t fault his personality, because there doesn’t seem to be one." Lea tells her masseuse. It plays like a throwaway line – we’re not even thirty minutes into the film – but it’s important. And that's part of Frear's intelligence. It's shot as trivial. But it's really much more. Of course, Lea has fallen in love with the young man. We can’t be sure what prompts her. Perhaps, it is the eternal seducer of youth; it could be his fawning over her like only a lad can. But most likely it’s the freedom she has with him. Chéri seems fine with the arrangement, although not particularly passionate. It turns out that Chéri is to be married soon. A marriage that for some reason he never told Lea of. Realising her attachment to Chéri takes a trip to a secluded hotel and with that she and Chéri’s lives spiral out of control.
You’ll notice that I refer to Chéri in the title as a comedy. And that is what it is – a farce almost. The somewhat mixed reception of the film has occurred because of bad advertising. This is not Dangerous Liaisons. This is Mrs. Henderson mixed with a little of The Grifters…and what’s so bad about that? Both were charming, small films anchored in the performances. And the performances in Chéri are good. Michelle Pfeiffer is wonderful as Lea. With 18 films of this year under my belt I say that Michele has given my favourite female performance. There are scenes where she could have gone for what is jarringly dramatic and done much more acting. But she goes for smooth and subtle and that’s what makes her performance so good. Those big eyes staring at you, you wonder why they talk of the beauty of Chéri’s eyes, and not the eeriness of Lea’s. Rupert Friend is quite good as Chéri. In the first half he is a bit too reticent, easily mistaken for poor performance. But with Lea’s departure and the petulance that is unearthed. It’s good stuff…if it does make you cringe. He dares to play Chéri as the emotionally stunted child he is. Kathy Bates gives another pleasant supporting turn as Madame Peloux. It is in her final scene with Pfeiffer that she really sells me. It is really Michelle’s scene, but the reaction on Bates face is what elevate the performance. When the words stop the characters must begin to speak, and so it is in Chéri.
This would be where I tell you to go see this…but I’m not sure. I realise that what has turned people away from Chéri is the period setting. Despite them not realising. If Chéri had been set present day France, or even Post World War II it would have been more well received I believe. But as it is, most people see the contemporary behaviour of the leads as anachronisms. See it if you like The Grifters. The ending will be a jolt and make you rethink the entire film. And that’s as it should be.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I must say I am surprised by this review. Everything I have read led me to skip this when it came to theaters. I will definitely give it a go with the upcoming DVD release.