Film Review | Sunday, 05 July 2009
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Too much is never enough

Ah, what an oasis period dramas can be! Especially throughout the summer months, when you’re grateful for anything that gives you shelter from giant robots, particularly of the kind powered by Michael Bay. So what could be a better indulgence than a gorgeous-enough-to-eat adaptation of Collette’s Cheri (she’s the French aesthete who gave us Gigi).
While a biopic of Collette’s life would arguably make a far more exciting film than any of her actual works, it is nice to indulge in some anti-recession cinema and sink into the story of Léa (Michelle Pfeiffer), an ageing courtesan living out her retirement in 1900 Paris, until she is called upon by her friend/rival/colleague Madame Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates) to help prepare the latter’s dissipated son Cheri (Rupert Friend) for marriage. Unfortunately for both Léa and Cheri, love ensues.

The first half proceeds in a confident pitter-patter of witty (and only occasionally barbed) dialogue and prettiness. We are lulled, none too deliberately, I suspect, into a false sense of security. What unfolds at the beginning is an unapologetic - yet unthreatening - sexy period-romp. Collette’s novel was written to shock; the French writer literally lived off controversy as she took the Parisian music halls by storm, showing off her lesbian affair with Marquise de Belbeuf (the two came close to sparking off a riot with an onstage kiss). The times, it is clear to all, aren’t just a-changing, they have changed utterly: stories girls confessing to kissing other girls (and liking it) have been lodged into our skull by Katy Perry over the past year, and Madonna’s publicity stunt with the as-yet-untoppled Britney served as a short lived (and fully sanctioned) rejuvenation ritual for the aging diva. So while history has necessarily taken some sting out of the tale, we can still bask in the amusing ‘naughtiness’ of Cheri’s upbringing, at the fact that he was not only raised by a courtesan but that they seem to be the only company he ever knew, in his formative years and beyond. At this stage, the Oedipal implications are meant to be taken for granted and tittered at (along with everything else), and you put your faith in Frears: he will deliver an enjoyable ‘unlikely romance’, you say to yourself. In any case, it looks too pretty for us to care about all that stuff, which is expected of a period piece, particularly one set in France’s belle époque. The costumes and Art Nouveau furnishings are a feast for the eyes, and being allowed to rove around the mise-en-scène is worth the price of admission alone. While it can’t be said that there’s any meticulous effort on Frears’ part to reconstruct the fin de siècle zeitgeist (it largely caters to stock preconceptions of the period), a genuine confidence for its source material is felt. While any ambition on the part of period dramas - quite often and sadly enough - comes either in the form of facile, uneasy revisionism or cringeworthy stereotypes of the ‘olden days’, Christopher Hampton’s dialogue has a knowing cynicism tempered by lightness. The sparring and bitchy gossip, delivered by the impeccably Dickensian oddities (read: fellow courtesans) that stud Madame Peloux’s abode at any given moment, blends into Darius Khondji’s exquisite cinematography with a true veteran’s effortlessness. As a cosmetic delight, it delights.

There’s always the problem of Cheri, our titular and supposedly main character lacking…well, everything, really. That there is a ‘point’ to him being such a spoilt cipher can be accepted to some extent, but we need to be kept interested. At first, taken as an Dorian Grey-lite figure, we can patiently wait for the folds to unfold, but they never really do, safe for a few creases at the end. The epoch makes the comparison to Wilde’s work too easy, but the BBC accents don’t exactly make it any less tempting. And indeed, at its best, the film offers that typically Wildean, shallow-but-brilliantine game of wits and beauty to ricochet over our eyes and ears, until (oh no!) psychological texture starts to cave in, and the Oedipal ripples we were meant not to take too seriously suddenly take center stage. In the end, this (otherwise quite enjoyable) effort by Frears and co. feels crippled by indecision: does it want to be a comedy-drama or a dramedy? Nothing wrong with genre hybridity, of course, but to be truly successful, it requires a steadier hand and more assertive directorial decisions. Voiceover narration is best used sparingly, particularly when dealing with adaptations of novels, where it can all too easily smack of creative lethargy. Frears himself turned this problem on its head with his highly successful adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity: by having John Cusak spout monologues taken verbatim from the book straight at the audience. But here, it just pops up at random when there’s a plot hole to be filled, which is never a good sign.
It could have been so much more: the decadence could have used a few bolder brushstrokes (each sex-scene dissolves to black all too soon), the melancholy better prepared and more felt. But as a pretty-but-flawed attempt at depicting the end of an era, it is incredibly easy on the eyeballs.


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