Saturday, May 02, 2009
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: Christopher Hampton
Starring: Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Friend, Kathy Bates
At the core of this costume drama is an examination of the pain and gracelessness that come with the loss of youth. Michelle Pfeiffer, who could not be ageing more gracefully, gives a classy performance as Lea, an ageing courtesan who falls for a former colleague’s 19 year old son, Chéri (Friend). The couple, although scandalous, share an idyllic, pressure free love but as reality begins to catch up with them Lea must face the fact that she cannot be anything to Chéri but a mother.
Chéri is forced into a marriage by his mother and the middle part of the film is taken up with both lovers trying to get along without the other. As it becomes clear that they cannot do this they are drawn back to each other but have drifted further than they thought.
A glorious balance of cynicism and romance, the film truly believes in love, but accepts that reality can often get in its way. The start of the film is rather snappy and trite. You’d be forgiven for feeling like you had seen all this before. However, as it progresses, the level of intimacy heightens and the story becomes more engaging.
The film fails on some levels. It seems to focus more on sumptuous visuals than character. The actors have very little to go on, particularly the title character who never really gets anything to do than display his melancholy and disillusionment. He changes his attitude at the drop of a hat, much to the confusion of the audience. Rupert Friend does what he can with a role that is more about the female gaze than developing a romantic lead. Lea’s fascination with him as her last chance to grasp youth and beauty is second only to her need for a son in her reasons for falling in love with him so hard. She has never had a son and he has never had a proper mother. This strand of the story is the most interesting. They need each other as mother and son but they know that this relationship will stunt their ability to grow as human beings.
The end of the film is very abrupt, tying up the story in a lazy voiceover. This nonchalance regarding the plot, coupled with the final shot of the film, a lingering close-up of Pfeiffer examining her wrinkling face, reinforce the true aim of this film; to examine the effects of ageing on someone whose whole life has been dependent on beauty. To this end, Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance is extremely moving. As someone who is never seen looking haggard, it is lovely to see her face finally ageing. Radiant and still very sexy, her crows feet and sagging brow line are starting to become apparent. Her performance is sad and beautiful, definitely the high point of the film, and probably what will make this film stand out from the usual costume drama fare.
This is a flawed, but in some way profound story. It looks wonderful and is worth the price of admission for Pfeiffer’s performance. It is mercifully short and although the plot is sparse, there is enough emotional engagement to keep the audience invested and entertained.
- Charlene Lydon