Friday, 8 May 2009

Cheri + Q&A (Christopher Hampton/Stephen Frears), BFI

Cheri, written by Christopher Hampton and directed by Stephen Frears, is an adaptation of two novels by Colette, set in France towards the end of the Belle Epoque. It traces the relationship between the ageing courtesan Lea (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her young lover, a jaded gadabout known as Cheri (Rupert Friend).

The structure of the film is fairly straightforward. In Act I, we see the cynical pair fall unexpectedly in love before his mother – played with charming malice by Kathy Bates – strongarms him into a marriage with a more 'suitable' teenage girl. Act II sees how the lovers struggle to cope with their separation and get on with their new lives, before Act III sees them hurled together again and, as they'd say in them days, it all goes tits-up.

It's all beautifully designed and shot, but it seems very slight compared to their previous films (Atonement for Hampton, The Queen for Frears). The script's main strength is how well it captures the polite passive aggression of the ruthlessly competitive high society – it's all smiles and bonhomie, while the conversational daggers are being slipped between the ribs.

I've never read Colette, but the lightweight plot might reflect the source material. In the Q&A, Christopher Hampton said that one of the difficulties of adapting her work is that she's a literary impressionist; she was more concerned with capturing the social setting and a group of characters than creating a strong narrative.

The characterisation remains fairly thin as well, although Pfeiffer's performance captures perfectly Lea's awareness of the effect age is having on her beauty. She also embodies the shock of falling in love and the tension of never being able to reveal her true feelings in a world where the outward appearance of happiness and success is all-important.

The biggest stumbling block for me is what an odious prick the poor little rich boy Cheri is. You want to climb through the screen and give him a slap every time he appears, and you can't help but wonder why Lea finds herself so attached to him.

There's also a slightly intrusive voiceover, narrated archly by Frears himself. He admitted in the Q&A that he only added the prologue – explaining the world of the courtesans – after audiences at early screenings were slightly confused. However, it works much better at the end, as the story reaches a shocking and tragic conclusion.

In fact, it typifies the complex tone of the film, which blends the froth and frivolity of lives devoted to pleasure with the melancholy awareness – personified by the ageing Lea - that this 'golden age' is coming to an end, with the shadow of the Great War looming just out of shot.

The setting and the presence of Michelle Pfeiffer, as well as the closing shot of an ageing beauty examining herself in a mirror, will inevitably draw comparisons with Hampton and Frears' earlier collaboration Dangerous Liasons. However, Cheri is a much less powerful piece of work.

The Q&A wasn't the most revealing, with Frears perching grumpily on the edge of his seat throughout. After one – admittedly strange – question, he said “It's no wonder Mike Leigh gets angry with audiences”.

He only got animated once, talking about how his process of visualising and creating a flowing series of shots; indeed, there are a couple of beautifully edited sequences in the film, particularly when Lea and Cheri are separated but still thinking of each other.

Christopher Hampton explained how the script came about; he was originally working on an abortive version of Colette's highly eventful life before being approached to adapt Cheri – her most successful novel – by theatre impressario Bill Kenwright. He also said that he did a large number of drafts, to satisfy the director's demands and to make the most of the 'delicate' source material.

Frears added how keen he was to have Hampton on set throughout the shoot, as the script underwent constant 'refinement' during rehearsal and filming, and the writer understood perfectly the 'musicality' of the language and the unusual tonal balance of the material.

Interview with Christopher Hampton (Time Out)

Writers' Rooms: Christopher Hampton (The Guardian)
Screen Daily review

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