Last night I watched Stephen Frears' new film, Chéri, and was absolutely salivating over its deliciously overindulgent decadence. Not since Marie Antoinette have I seen such cinematic eye-candy--and although the narrative wavered and lacked substance, the depth of the decor and the captivating costumes were substantial enough to carry the weak plot.
The story opens on Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer), an aging "courtesan" (read: prostitute), living at the height of the Belle Epoque in 19th century France. Though she is still stunning, Lea has decided to retire into a life of luxury and accept her age gracefully at the end of a long, successful career (basically, to quit while she's ahead). The one thing she doesn't anticipate after a lifetime in the business of love is to find it--especially with an only peripherally post-pubescent man-boy (Chéri/Rupert Friend) whose mother openly encourages their coital coterie in the hope that Lea will make a man out of her son. Six years later, the same meddling matron arranges a proper marriage for Chéri and that is, as they say, "the end of the affair."
The "problem" with this film is that there are really only two scenes, repeated ad infinitum over eighty-six minutes and broken up by abrupt costume and location changes that attract the eye and the mind more than the actual storyline. How this movie could possibly be based on two novels is beyond me (I imagine that Miss Colette must have spent an awful lot of time setting the stage), but in my opinion the balance of minimalism and extravagance in this adaptation is perfectly pleasing. The real poignancy to be found is not in the expected failing of a doomed love affair, but in the heartbreaking contrast between the unfailing resplendence of Lea's luxurious backdrop and her own fading beauty. We almost don't care about Chéri... he's only as relevant as the mirror on her dressing table. The intent of the film was not to make us believe that a fifty-year-old woman was truly, madly, deeply in love with an arrogant, angst-ridden teen (if it was, I reject it), but the helplessness she felt as youth slipped slowly out of her grasp.
And it's really pretty. So I like it :)