by Natasha Senjanovic
- Excerpts from the press conference with the British director at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival. Frears was in top witty form
During the press conference for Chéri [+see also:
interview: Stephen Frears
film profile], unveiled in competition at the 2009 Berlinale, the English director joked around with journalists in his usual pithy style.
What was your basic idea for this movie, which seems very much influenced by Douglas Sirk’s idea of melodrama? What work did Michelle Pfeiffer do to impersonate this fading beauty?
I didn’t have any particular vision while making the film. Of course Sirk was in my mind, along with other people, but it was a very good script, which is the most important thing. I think Michelle Pfeiffer is an actress who works with imagination since she clearly knows nothing of fading beauty!
Although a tragedy, the film has a light tone and is very ironic. Was this also in the novel and the script?
It is in the novel and it was in Christopher’s [Hampton, the screenwriter] writing, and of course it is Colette’s secret. She does it all in jokes, rather lightly, going on about clothes while there is a tragedy going on underneath. That’s why it was so difficult. That was what you had to get right, and it’s entirely to do with tone, and it drives everyone mad! But it goes right back to Colette. She was regrettably very, very clever and Christopher is very clever and it’s rather depressing!
Twenty years ago you made Dangerous Liaisons, which is very similar in tone and subject to Chéri. Which do you like better?
I don’t think it’s at all similar – John Malkovich isn’t in it! There are themes which emerge which may be similar, but I think this has to do with French literature. But they’re very, very different.
This is one of the your most lusciously photographed films. Were painters like [Lawrence] Alma-Tadema an inspiration for this film? Particularly the shot when Michelle Pfeiffer comes out of the terrace with the sea of Biarritz before her, and looks down at the young man. It is reminiscent of paintings from England and the Netherlands of those years.
I’m very, very flattered but if you go to Biarritz that’s what’s there. There’s nothing else to photograph really! We would have made it more beautiful but I’m from a bankrupt country and we have no money!
How was it for you to shoot in Germany?
Well, we were in a studio in Cologne so it’s not quite like shooting in Germany, but it was a very nice studio and a pleasure to work there. But I can’t pretend I was shooting in the streets.
This was the first love story in a long time without mobile phones and computers. Was it interesting to make it in this old-fashioned style?
I never thought of that, perhaps they should have been texting each other! But I didn’t have a choice.
With regards to you bankrupt country, and this also relates to the similarity between Dangerous Liaisons and Chéri. Both stories take place in a period of great wealth just before a crisis, probably like the time when you planned this film. Now that there is a crisis do you think people can relate to an époque such as the one in the film?
I have no idea but I suppose we will find out when we put the film in the cinemas. During the Great Depression people used to go and see Fred Astaire films and a lot of cinema has to do with escapism.
But these women were incredibly wealthy. It’s a shocking story of the immorality of women and the wonderfulness of men!