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Review: Chéri

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Frears returns in grand style

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- The British director transforms a bitter tale on the passing of time and an impossible love that transcends power struggles in couples into a brilliant ensemble piece

Review: Chéri

Twenty years after Dangerous Liaisons, Stephen Frears has once again teamed up with screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Atonement [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
) and American star Michelle Pfeiffer for a dramatic (perhaps even tragic) love story made with the director’s customary brio of a light comedy.

A first-class storyteller, Frears’ career boasts films that are diverse, in budget and subject matter, but united by a stylistic coherence and the ability to recount with apparent simplicity stories of great emotional depth: from homosexual love in My Beautiful Laundrette (shot in 16mm for TV in 1985), to Hollywood title Mary Reilly (1996), to the recent, successful, regal quasi-biography, The Queen [+see also:
film review
trailer
film focus
interview: Andy Harries
interview: Stephen Frears
film profile
]
(2006).

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Chéri [+see also:
trailer
film focus
interview: Stephen Frears
film profile
]
, based on the 1920 novel by French writer Colette, is set in early 20th-century Paris, at the height of the Belle Epoque. Lea de Lonval, a mature and sophisticated courtesan, agrees to educate in the ways of love the indolent and spoiled Fred (UK actor Rupert Friend), called Chéri, the 19-year-old son of Lea’s friend and rival Madame Peloux (the wonderful Katy Bates).

Their relationship lasts six years, until Chéri’s mother arranges a marriage for him with a young heiress.

Her pride and emotions wounded, and overcome by the pain of the unexpected loss, Lea flees, pushing her young former lover, now used to the maternal devotion he never received from his own mother, to frustration and self-destruction.

However, Lea’s return to Paris, after months of torment, pulls Chéri out of his malaise but does not foreshadow to a expected happy ending.

Shot in the MMC Coloneum Studios, in Germany, and on location in Paris and Biarritz, Chéri owes part of its charm to the period costumes and set design, inspired, according to DoP Darius Khondji, by Max Ophuls, Jean Renoir and the pictorial style of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist.

The camera moves freely through Léa’s house, which is elegantly furnished with art nouveau objects and illuminated by luminous pastel tones, while shots of Madame Peloux’s vulgar abode, featuring bright, Impressionistic colours, are static and heavy.

With great psychological finesse, Frears creates a minor miracle in this big-screen adaptation of Colette’s delicate writing, transforming a bitter tale on the passing of time and an impossible love, which transcends age and the superficial manifestation or power struggles in couples, into a brilliant ensemble piece.

In an often desolate emotional landscape, Frears sidesteps melodrama and weaves into the impending tragedy wonderful dialogue, underscored by the lively voice-over and the actresses’ beautiful performances, as an ironic counterpoint to the misery of life.

(Translated from Italian)

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main awards/selection

Berlinale 2009 In Competition
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