Chéri: Out of the Boudoir

When Oscar nominations are announced, there are always deserving films that get snubbed. When Stephen Frears’ 2009 film adaptation of Collette’s classic Chéri didn’t get nominated as best film, I wasn’t entirely surprised. However, I would have expected to see it up for acting, art direction, cinematography, or costume design.

Frears, who has proven masterful at directing period pieces (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement), brings France’s Belle Époque to the screen with vivid beauty. While it wasn’t the magnificent book-to-film adaptation that Dangerous Liaisons (written by Choderlos de Laclos’s in1782) was, it was a noble effort and a wonderful showcase for the acting abilities of Michelle Pfeiffer (who also starred in Dangerous Liaisons), Kathy Bates, and Rupert Friend.

Chéri, first published in 1920, is a classic by France’s celebrated author, Collette. The title character’s real name is Fred Peloux, but goes by Chéri. He is a beautiful, spoiled, and acerbic young man who takes up with his mother’s friend, Lea, when he is only 19-years-old. Both Chéri’s mother, Charlotte, and Lea are courtesans in their mid-40s – an age considered close to ‘old’ at the time. Lea, unlike Charlotte, hasn’t lost her beauty over the years and is still sought after by many men. Just as Lea is thinking of retiring, she takes Chéri as her lover.

The two have an affair that lasts six years, but after Charlotte arranges for Chéri to marry her friend’s daughter, Edmee, the affair comes to an end. Both Lea (who is now a year away from 50) and Chéri (now 25) act nonchalant about the end of their relationship just as they did while they were having it. Neither ever admitted their deep feelings to one another or to themselves.

In spite of their blasé goodbye (Lea says she always knew the day would come when Chéri would marry), their attachment to one another fails to vanish. While Chéri is off with his new bride on their Italian honeymoon, he can think of no one but Lea. Meanwhile, Lea is trying her hardest to put on a public smile, but finds herself filled with grief she didn’t realize she was capable of.

When Lea mysteriously takes off on a trip, tongues begin wagging, including Charlotte’s. Where has she gone? Who has she gone with? Lea has merely gone to the south of France with her maid, Rose, hoping the news of her mystifying trip will reach Chéri. When it does, he is driven mad by her absence.

In the end, the two reunite, only to find that they can never be together. Much of this is due to the era they live in. At the turn of the century, marriages didn’t end in divorce and women of Lea’s age and profession didn’t have long-lasting relationships with such young men.

Despite its heartbreaking nature, Chéri isn’t melodramatic. Collette doesn’t harp on each character’s misfortune, but instead gives the book a polished and jaunty, glossed-over sadness. Her main strength as a writer is in her sensual details. The reader can feel the heavy drapes covering the high windows and smell the perfumes that Lea dabs over her throat.

Frears manages to get much of the book on film as beautifully as Collette got the words onto the page. He did, however, have a difficult time with the frolicsome tone of the book, especially since he directed such a tragic and dramatic adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons. He told the The New York Times:

“I thought this was going to be easy, and it wound up being one of the most difficult jobs I’ve ever had… You’re always doing two things at once. You’re making a sort of silly, frothy piece of nonsense, and you’re making a sad story underneath. At any point the surface and what’s underneath can be totally contradictory. You have to be very, very attentive to the tone, so you can see both things at the same moment.”

Screenwriter, Christopher Hampton (who also wrote the screenplay for Liaisons echoed Frears’ sentiments:

Dangerous Liaisons was much easier, because that plot has more complexity, more drive. In ‘Chéri’ everything important is in little turns of phrase, tiny shifts of attitude.” (“An Englishman Returns to the Gallic Boudoir” by Terrence Rafferty, 17 June 2009).

Chéri opens as a jaunty romp, showing wealthy beauties and dapper l’hommes drinking and flirting. Meanwhile a narrator (Frears), whose voice crops up throughout the film, explains the life of a courtesan.

As the love affair between Chéri and Lea turns sour, the drama becomes weighty, which seems called for in this case. Pfeiffer is outstanding as Lea. She brings the character to life fully, bringing forth the icy yet warm personality the heroine of the book possesses. Pfeiffer makes Lea’s despair more prevalent after she breaks off with Chéri, her facial expressions and actions the embodiment of heartbreak. As Lea, she releases a warranted suffering in private and a restrained pain in public while her audience — the other retired gossipy courtesans — look on enthusiastically.

Speaking of gossipy courtesans, Kathy Bates is a superb Charlotte Peloux. She fills out her corseted dresses salaciously while patting her son’s head and guffawing over some bit of gossip she’s heard. She and Pfeiffer are purely entertaining as they play off of each other like their characters in the book. On walks through the dewy gardens or on Charlotte’s sunny back patio, they snip at each other in a game of one-upmanship that is both bitchy and loving. Despite their competitive kinship, it becomes clear that they need each other.

The other actors who play the courtesan friends of Charlotte’s are simultaneously colorful and repugnant and make for some humorous and treasured scenes in the film. One scene in particular showcases an old cartoonish woman named Lili (played by Gaye Brown) and her skinny teenage lover named Guido (Rollo Weeks). They sit on the back patio while Lili pinches Guido’s cheeks and eventually buries his face in her ample bosom. Pfeiffer looks on in horror, presumably wondering if this is how she and Chéri must look to the world.

Frears manages to get Collette’s sensual details on film beautifully. Every scene is an exquisite eyeful, from the grand house interiors to the natural surroundings — sun-drenched gardens and sweeping shots of the ocean. The costumes as well are magnificent and finely detailed. The cream gown trimmed in black that Pfieffer dons in the beginning of the film is unforgettable as are her many illustrious hats.

Rupert Friend is a perfectly cast Chéri. He looks exactly like the character I imagined in the book — constantly lounging with a cigarette in his hand, long legs crossed and head tossed to the side as a flippant expression plays over his handsome features. His pale skin and hollowed eyes give him the appearance of a young man in need of love and coddling. Pfeiffer is glad to take on the role and the two of them, despite their age differences, look every bit the glamorous and felicitous couple.

Hampton’s screenplay stays very close to the book. My only complaint, which is a big one, is that at the very end of the film as the two lovers part, the narrator quickly sums up The Last of Chéri, published in 1926. This film is supposedly solely based on Chéri.

The two novellas are usually printed in one volume, but if you haven’t read The Last of Chéri and go into the film thinking you’re only going to come away knowing what happens in the first novel, be forewarned. In a few short paragraphs, the narrator ruins the second book for anyone who hasn’t yet read it.

In addition, what is said in the last sentence by the narrator as Pfeiffer looks into her mirror (in much the same way Glenn Close looks into her mirror at the end of Dangerous Liaisons) is not relevant to the story between Lea and Chéri, yet. We only know the young man of Chéri, not the man he becomes in The Last of Chéri. This makes the overly dramatic last line of the film feel entirely unnecessary. My advice is the stop the film once Chéri walks out of Lea’s house.

Despite this mishap, Frears and Hampton puts the viewer into Chéri in a very real and sensual manner, paying homage to Collette’s luxuriant corporeal details. They also do a gracious job of expressing her vision de l’amour.