Reviewed in July 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Stephen Frears. Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Friend, Kathy Bates, Felicity Jones, Iben Hjejle, Frances Tomelty, Anita Pallenberg, Harriet Walter, Toby Kebbell, Jack Walker, the voice of Stephen Frears. Screenplay: Christopher Hampton (based on the novels Chéri and La Fin de Chéri).

Photo © 2009 Miramax Films/Bill Kenwright Films
I'm hard pressed to think of a single way in which the dramatic stakes could be lower in Chéri, in which Stephen Frears's dawdling over run-of-the-mill period finery proves just as hollow and infuriating as it is when any number of downmarket shoot-em-ups linger over guns and carnage with absolutely nothing to say. Failing to convince in any but the most listless way of the attraction between Michelle Pfeiffer's masky middle-aged courtesan Léa and Rupert Friend's pale, red-lipped sybarite Chéri, the movie is all the more helpless to mine any tension from their separation. A late scene where they are briefly reunited gives Pfeiffer a shot at playing frank and disillusioned anger, the register in which she has achieved almost all of her interesting dramatic work. Otherwise, though, Frears traps her in exactly the mode of breathy, period archness in which she never sounds or shows to advantage, despite being at least as beautiful as all the cushions and gowns. Kathy Bates opts for a repeated habit of hearty, incongruous laughter that's often good for a pick-me-up; I liked how her corset pinched her whenever she guffawed, but even as her palm flew in pain toward her midriff, she simply couldn't help herself. Still, despite and because of these self-conscious provisions of mirth, she barrels about the movie with her suddenly typical lack of subtlety, and neither she nor Pfeiffer seem the least bit French, or the least bit friendly even by the standards of strained social pretense, or the least bit likely to belong to the same profession. Friend is a tedious cipher, looking like a young Charlotte Rampling dolled up as Oscar Wilde on his best day. Not a single one of them connects with the audience, not even when Frears baldly recycles the famous direct-to-camera ending of his own Dangerous Liaisons as a parting gift to Pfeiffer, with the solitary upshot of making both films look emptier, and this one all the more hollowly desperate.

Despite one's hopes for the assembled talent, the tech credits don't do anything to elevate the proceedings. Darius Khondji (Se7en, Evita, The Beach) throws an uncharacteristically blue-white light over almost everything, except the yellow-white light he throws over Pfeiffer. Alexandre Desplat fusses away at a turn-of-the-century score that might be interesting if only it weren't, like almost everything else in the film, so unaccountably smitten with itself, and weren't stuck supplying color to a film that's full of blank gazes pretending toward meaning, and rote events pretending toward narrative. In between are too many moments like that in which Pfeiffer enters a large dining room, and as if the framing and blocking weren't already giving this wit's-end character too grand an entrance, Frears actually tilts slowly up her body at close range, so that we can appreciate her dress and her antique hat and clutch and consider giving someone an Oscar nomination. Frears's own sporadic voiceover is an exemplar of nattering about social contexts and character traits that any halfway-committed actor or sequence should find ways to show us. This crutch is particularly damaging to the all-talking introductory scenes, when I literally counted the minutes till I heard something that I couldn't otherwise detect in the images or chalk up to familiar convention and common sense.

Across the film, but particularly in the first half, the scenes are notably short, which seems at first like an interesting experiment in making Chéri evocative of time rushing past, carrying youth into hard worldliness and hustling the middle of life inexorably toward its end. The final result, though, is that the story ends before we feel that the drama has really begun. The proportional balance falls squarely on the period when Léa and Chéri are separated, without ever inducting us into any rich sense of what it meant when they were together, or why we should desire to see them reunited. Whether or not he's working closely from Colette's original, Christopher Hampton's tired string of would-be witticisms ("I can't criticize his character because he doesn't seem to have one!") does nothing either to deepen or to enliven this tale, and though Frears shows admirable ambition by staying away from high-dudgeon tragedy or weightless farce, his indifferently charted middle ground soaks up the lurking banalities of both approaches without the convictions or satisfactions of either. Even by comparison to a wobbly, willfully anachronistic bauble like Being Julia, much less to a drily ironic and sensual drama buffa like Up at the Villa, Chéri seems arbitrary and instantly irrelevant, offensively sure of seizing the interest of some very narrow demographics: period clothes horses, forgiving Pfeiffer fans, and suburban art-house bluehairs who like the house best when there's no real art in it. I'm a member of the first two clubs and a frequent, increasingly impatient victim of the third: try telling them that Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell does more with its camera, style, sound, structure, and point of view than Chéri ever dreams of attempting, at any point between its faux-artifactual opening and the smugly abrupt narration that closes it. Lying on a mattress and staring out with inarticulate wistfulness are to this film what answering the phone and marveling at the odd stag were to Frears's The Queen: motifs for "structuring" and lending mood to a film that still feels unformed, and for padding out a movie that still comes up short. I don't just mean the running time. Grade: D+

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