From the opening frames of Chérie, the viewer is drawn into an opulent, decadent world, at once foreign and familiar to those who have mixed with the denizens of high society in our own time. But the depiction of that world in director Stephen Frears' tour de force is no simple condemnation nor exaltation: the charms and moral ambiguities of France's Belle Epoch co-exist in this rendering of a gilded age at its apogee, most completely in the glowing figure of Michelle Pfeiffer as Léa de Lonval, an exquisite courtesan about to age out of her profession.
At its core, Chérie is a movie about time and the constancy of change -- a theme that could be esoteric and depressing, were it not for the stunning visual and aural landscape the filmmakers grant us, the stylized repartee that screenwriter Christopher Hampton draws from Colette's celebrated novel, and Pfeiffer's grounded, sexy and elegant rendering of the woman at the center of the film. Léa is both wise and playful, jaded and vulnerable, a ravishing beauty who looks every minute of her 49 years. In Léa, Pfeiffer offers a rendering of an aging woman such as I have never before seen on the big screen. Like Diane Keaton's character in Something's Gotta Give, she plays a woman with wrinkles who is undeniably sexy. But unlike Keaton's sweet and sexually uptight character, Léa is in full possession of her sexuality; she knows what she's got, knows she's still beautiful, yet has no illusions about society's contempt for the older woman as a sexual creature. Alone with her maid, preening before her mirror, Léa raises her arms above her head, and remarks, "Nice handles for such an old vase." So she opts to retire while she's still in demand.
Enter Chérie, played by Rupert Friend, who is the 19-year-old son of her rival, the retired courtesan Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates), still known to her by the pet name she bestowed upon him when he was a baby. Charlotte, a relic of her time, was a disinterested mother at best, and is now eager to deliver her spoiled, neglected and costly offspring into Léa's hands. She takes him in because she likes him, because she has something to teach him and because she wants a lover of her own choosing. He goes with her to her home in the south of France because he has grown bored with his life of debauchery in Paris, and winds up staying with Léa for six years, until Mama Charlotte contrives another plan for him -- one that will ensure her a handsome pension. Along the way, the worldly courtesan and the petulant young man fall in love, a love on which Father Time, if not Mama Charlotte, has imposed his limitations.
Chérie concerns itself at once with the peculiarities of time as it shapes human relationships; one cannot escape the age into which one has been born, after all. But within one's own time, a woman can opt to cling to old glories, or move with the current of the age. The turn of the last century heralded the coming modern age: the telephone and the automobile were among its innovations. Women's clothing changed in significant ways, as well: bustles disappeared from dresses, and dresses inflected with exotic forms eliminated the need for corseting. The glorious costuming of this film cleverly points this up: Charlotte is still dressed in the fussy, old style, while Léa glides about in Art Nouveau gowns that feature kimono-inspired bodices, loose sleeves, and skirts that are sumptuously draped, not frivolously gathered into confining waistlines. (I predict that Consalata Boyle's designs for Pfeiffer will be reflected in the 2010 fall fashions.)
The film speaks to changes still percolating in today's society. Because we meet Léa at the close of her courtesan career, we find her a liberated woman, one free to do as she pleases. She has money and beauty, a good mind and business acumen, and a young lover. She has the freedom to get her heart broken, and she does. Still, we're left with the sense that hers is a life fully lived.
Yet her young charge is still trapped in his mother's time, when an arranged marriage ensured one's future fortunes, and we find him enslaved to a most female fate while Léa possesses the independence to live in beauty. Chérie himself is a jarring character, a simpering young man with a love for pearls and fine fabrics, and ultimately far more vulnerable to the pain of love than his feminine paramour. Gender norms are reversed in Colette's story, which was written in 1920, in the aftermath of the Great War, but set in its ante bellum. Throughout Frears' film, change and indeed its backlash is suggested, and a sense of foreboding provides a faint undercurrent.
Though not every element of Chérie succeeds, it is a film that haunts the viewer days after the final credits have rolled. Special kudos belong to composer Alexandre Desplat for a stunning score, cinematographer Darius Khondji and production designer Alan MacDonald who, along with costumer Boyle, create a world into which the viewer longs to step, if only for one moment in time.
Chérie opens nationwide on Friday, June 26th.