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Adieu, Cheri

May 24, 2009

I confess I’ve been known to go to the cinema on the promise of fabulous costuming, and I wasn’t disappointed with Chéri, based on the Chéri novels of the 1920s by the French author Colette. That is, I wasn’t disappointed by the costumes, designed by Consolata Boyle. (Although maybe that’s because I’m quite keen on post-Edwardian fashion. Very keen indeed.)

Chéri (Rupert Friend), the young world-weary son of a wealthy courtesan, is educated in the ways of love by Lea (Michelle Pfeiffer), a middle-aged courtesan and friend of Chéri’s mother. The affair turns into a six year relationship, which ends only when Chéri’s mother arranges for him to marry someone else. But can Chéri and Lea go their separate ways?

Set in the Belle Époque, in Paris before the first world war, the film is visually stunning, from the amazing art nouveau bed and balcony of Lea’s Parisian apartment to the louche cafe underworld of Maxim’s. The six year time lapse in the film is reflected beautifully in the costumes. Lea’s costumes change from the post Edwardian style (note that Kathy Bates as Chéri’s mother, the less fashion forward character, is wearing a more fussy, old-fashioned style):

 

After six years have elapsed, the silhouette has changed. This dress is pure Poiret:

Photos from http://www.pfeiffertheface.com

Beautiful. I really wanted to love this film to bits, but while I was watching it I couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that it lacked substance.  Despite the perfect cast and design team, something about the screenplay, editing or direction or maybe the slightly awkward mix of tragedy and comedy just didn’t work for me.  The story of Chéri is not so much plot driven, it’s a psychological drama.I wonder if trying to make Chéri a mainstream blockbuster was trying to force Colette’s novel to be something it wasn’t. I kept thinking how amazing the film could have been if the same actors and design team had been directed by someone like Catherine Breillat. 

 

I mention Breillat because I bought the DVD of her film The Last Mistress a while back and loved it (although my French is so rusty I had rely on the subtitles). The similarity of the plot with Chéri is striking:  young spoilt aristocrat is torn between his new young wife and his long-term mistress. The mistress in this case is Spanish, and played with fiery spirited fury by Asia Argento. Again, gorgeous visuals and costume (although from a period I’m personally less interested in costume-wise, ie. c. 1835 big skirted big sleeved Victorian). But the thing I love about French films is that there is far higher tolerance of ambiguity and the assumption that not everything has to be absolutely spelled out for the viewer. These films seem more comfortable with the film as a process, rather than a destination. After all, sometimes in art as in life there doesn’t have to be a resolution, or even a neat ending…

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