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Yesterday I attended a preview of the film Chéri and a Question and Answers with the director and writer. What follows is a review of sorts. I have tried not to give any of the plot away.

Chéri is the new film from director Steven Frears (The Queen, Dangerous Liaisons) and writer Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement), starring Michelle Pfeiffer, and thus reuniting the trio for the first time in 21 years.  The film is based on the novella of the same named penned by Collette perhaps most famous (at least in the English speaking world) for Gigi.

Sadly, the film is a lazily and hastily conceived pastiche of life and love in belle epoche Paris.  What should have been an emotional story about the gut wrenching, and ultimately doomed love between a young man and an older woman, was instead merely an excuse to deploy an expertly assembled set of costumes hung on a few big name stars with no other purpose it seems than to get box office sales.

I had a pretty strong hunch that this would be the case when the film opened with a voiceover (the narrator was played by Frears himself) which explained to the audience what a courtesan was and the sorts of things they got up to, what the belle epoch was, I was half expecting a world map with a clumsily placed Eiffel Tower. Such devices merely serve to treat audiences as fools, a crime of the highest order; for even if we did not have clue about life in the belle epoch surely that is why the film will be exciting. Perhaps perhaps we might actually learn something from watching the film, understanding the narrative and inferring from that, facts about the type of society which the characters inhabit. In other words, cinema is exciting when we have to use our brains, and boring when we are spoon fed every detail especially when the feeder is the director’s voiceover!

What made this so much worse was the fact that in the Q & A afterwards, Steven admitted that they had no intention of using voiceover. It was in fact a response to test audiences who could not work out what was going on. Who did they show it to? The set was absurdly of its time, it would be akin to making a film set in the 2000s and the characters inhabiting The Design Museum. The costumes were exact to every minute detail. Dates were peppered through the script. There were constant references to the sexual exploits of, and the rich rewards given to, the female protagonists. What is not to get? Even without the voiceover it was child’s-play to put the pieces together. At any rate, I thought the answer Steven gave to the question showed that he had not had an overarching vision of what the film should be, and this lack of vision bled into every aspect of the film.

The insults to the audience were not only manifested in the voiceover. There were manifold and totally unnecessary flashbacks. The narrator kept telling us what the characters were thinking. The score shunned any one of the exquisite impressionist music created in the belle epoche, plumping instead for music redolent of TV crime drams. Any shots that displayed any hint of cinematic mastery (I’m thinking particularly of the beach shot in Biarritz) were cut in seconds  in a desperate attempt to hold the attention of minds infected by the short-termism of Britain’s Got Talent.

The acting was wooden with the occasional exception of Rupert Friend (Chéri). Michelle Pfeiffer looked the part of his older lover and she managed brief moments of dramatic intensity even if the constant wandering of her accent was a shade off putting.  Kathy Bates was horribly miscast as an aging Madame Peloux (Chéri’s mother), who was once one of Paris’ most powerful courtesans and a member of the corps de ballet. Although I am willing to suspend disbelief to a certain degree, I was seriously sceptical that Kathy Bates could ever have executed an Arabesque let alone have ever been considered a great beauty (my apologies to Ms. Bates).

The combination of poor acting and a limp script meant that there was no emotional involvement with the characters, and what is in essence a tragic love story along the lines of La Dame aux Camellias became merely a wander through some pretty sets in pretty clothes.

What brings all of these criticisms together was evinced in the answers to two questions posed to Steven Frears. The first was “When you read a script do you instantly see shots, hear music and know which actors to use?”. The second was “Did you do much research into the costumes”.  In response to the former he replied along the lines that he did not really see anything when he read a script, he’d have a vague idea of what to do, but would largely work it out on set. At this point Hampton stepped in and said “you always know what you don’t want”. The answer to the latter was that he had done no research, he just knew who to hire to do the costumes. Both of these responses seem to point to a man who is not making films for art any longer. There is no overarching design in the mind of the artist, and therefore no attention to detail; no real interest in how the film comes across. If there is no vision for a piece of film how can it ever be visionary, let alone interesting.

It seems that Steven Frears is no longer interested in cinema. With Chéri there is a distinct whiff that he simply had to make just another film to follow on from The Queen. He has shown the world that rather than a film maker he is a jobbing director.

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