"I love my past. I love my present. I'm not ashamed of what I've had, and I'm
not sad because I have it no longer."
- The Last of
Cheri, 1926, French novelist Colette (1873 - 1954)
"Only from the heart Can you touch the sky."
- Jalal ad-Din Rumi (Persian Poet and Mystic, 1207-1273)
Twenty Years after their collaboration on
Dangerous Liaisons, British director Stephen Frears and his Hollywood égerie
team up once again for the screen adaptation of another classic novel in French
Literature: Colette's Cheri.
Aided by a pastel-tinged
widescreen lensing by French Iranian cinematographer Darius Khondjiand
Hampton's script (who also penned Dangerous Liaisons),
Frears brings to Life a romantic drama set in 1920s Paris, where the son of a
courtesan retreats into a fantasy world after being forced to end his
relationship with the older woman who educated him in the ways of love. The
filmmaker thanks to whom Helen Mirren
won her well deserved Oscar® statuette in the 2006 for her performance in the
bio epic The Queen,
reiterates his taste for elegant subjects and classic settings.
Rarely has a film recreated
the Paris of the Belle Epoque with so much taste and precision. Based on
the novel by Sidonie Gabrielle Colette better known by her penname Colette, the
plot focus' on the love affaire between Léa de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer), a
wealthy but ageing courtesan and the young "Chéri" Fred Peloux (Rupert Friend),
the son of a friend of Léa. The movie offers an interesting yet cruel metaphor
about love and the degree of mutual commitment between lovers confined within
the restrictions of age and social responsibility.
Never has MichellePfeiffer been
more beautifully photographed in a role that seems fitted for her like a glove
at this stage in her eclectic career. One that has spanned for barely three
decades allowing her to appear as a teenage sex idol in a follow up to the
musical Grease (Grease
to more serious roles under the direction of such greats as Brian de Palma in
Pacino, to Martin Scorcese in Age of Innocence
or Tim Burton in Batman Returns
( in the costumed role of Catwoman). Interestingly for Iranian-American movie
buffs, she was also to play in an improbably B-movie Thriller by John Landis
called Into the NightoppositeJeff Goldblumabout a young
woman and an ordinary insomniac man caught up in a cheerfully dashing and
murderous chase throughout the night in Los Angeles. Where everyone seems to
want a piece of six emeralds, belonging to the Crown Jewels of the Shah of Iran
(recently deposed by the Islamic Revolution) and which Diana has smuggled into
the country. Although not a masterpiece, the film has become something of a cult
film as one of the first onscreen appearances of the two future rising cinema
stars of the 1990's: Pfeiffer and Goldblum, who at the time were mostly
recognizeable for their rare tv appearances in the late 70's and early 80's.
Stephen Frears' Chéri
gives Michelle Pfeiffer the opportunity to play a role diametrically opposite to
that of Madame de Tourvel in Dangerous Liaisons by playing the
seductress rather than the victim. Frears' accuracy in illustrating the
ambivalent relationship of this doomed love story make it a perfect adaptation
of the 120 pages long novel by Colette.
Chéri is hardly twenty years
old when he encounters the beautiful Léa de Lonval,
twice his age. A
Women with an insatiable appetite for men who never truly privileged love in her
life. Yet for seven years she will have an intimate relation with Chéri until
the day he decides to marry a young beautiful girl his age who also happens to
Yet Chéri is hardly in love with his fiancé. Léa on the other hand can no longer
bare the separation and distance with her former lover. However neither wants to
admit their true feelings and as a result Léa finds escape by traveling abroad.
So does Chéri in desperation thinking that he has definitively lost her.
When they meet again, Léa on
one hand seems even more passionately in love than ever before while Chéri comes
to realize that he was actually more infatuated by the memory of her than the
beautiful yet physically older women she has become ...
Colette's sentimental story
turns out to be much more profound than what it seems to suggest initially by
proving that when it comes to true Love, age does not truly matter ...
The Belle Époque
(French for "Beautiful Era") was a period in European social history that began
during the late 19th century and lasted until World War I. Occurring during the
time of the French Third Republic and the German Empire, the "Belle Époque" was
named in retrospect, when it began to be considered a "golden age" for the upper
classes, as peace prevailed among the major powers of Europe, new technologies
improved lives that were unclouded by income tax, and the commercial arts
adopted Renaissance and eighteenth-century styles to modern forms. In the newly
rich United States, emerging from the Panic of 1873, the comparable epoch was
dubbed the "Gilded (not 'Golden') Age".
CAPTION: Trailer of Stephen Frears' Cheri
starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend in the title roles. Cinematography
by Darius Khondji
The separation between the
fortunes and daily life of "haves" and "have nots" in Western Europe and the
United States increased dramatically in the last quarter of the century. Cheap
coal and cheap labor contributed to the cult of the orchid and made possible the
perfection of fruits grown under glass, as the apparatus of state dinners
extended to the upper classes; champagne was perfected during the Belle Époque.
Exotic feathers and furs were more prominently featured in fashion than ever
before, as haute couture was invented in Paris, the center of the Belle Époque,
where fashion began to move in a yearly cycle; in Paris restaurants such as
Maxim's achieved a new splendor and cachet as places for the rich to parade, and
the Opéra Garnier devoted enormous spaces to staircases as similar show places.
Bohemian lifestyles gained a different glamour, pursued in the cabarets of
In terms of domestic
politics, there were very few regime changes in Europe, the major exception
being Portugal, which experienced a republican revolution in 1910. However,
tensions between working-class socialist parties, bourgeois liberal parties, and
landed or aristocratic conservative parties did increase in many countries; and
it has been claimed that profound political instability belied the calm surface
of European politics in the era. In fact, militarism and international tensions
grew considerably between 1897 and 1914, and the immediate prewar years were
marked by a general armaments competition in Europe. Additionally, this era was
one of massive overseas colonialism, known as the New Imperialism, or High
Imperialism. The most famous portion of this imperial expansion was the Scramble
The Belle Époque was an era of great scientific and technological advancement in
Europe and the world in general. Inventions that either are associated with this
era or became generally common in this era include the automobile, the aeroplane,
the phonograph, the telephone, the cinématographe and the underground railway.
As for the arts underwent a
radical transformation during the decades before World War I, and new artistic
forms associated with cultural modernity emerged.
The arts underwent a radical transformation during the decades before World War
I, and new artistic forms associated with cultural modernity emerged.
Impressionism, which had
been considered the artistic avant-garde in the 1860s, gained widespread
acceptance. In the early 20th century, Expressionism became the new avant-garde.
The visual art style known as Art Nouveau, sometimes called "Belle Époque
Theatre adopted new modern
methods, including Expressionism, and many playwrights wrote plays that
shocked contemporary audiences either with their frank depictions of everyday
life and sexuality or with unusual artistic elements. Cabaret theater
also became popular. Musically, the Belle Époque was characterized by salon
music. This was not considered "serious" salon music but, rather, short
pieces considered accessible to a general audience. In that period, waltzes also
flourished. Operettas were also at the peak of their popularity, with composers
such as Johann Strauss III, Emmerich Kalman, and Franz Lehár.
It was also during this era
that the motion pictures were developed thanks to the competing talents of
France's Lumiere Brothers and America's Edison each claiming in their own right
the invention of the "Cinématographe" or "Moving Pictures" though these did not
become common until after World War I.
European literature underwent a major transformation during the Belle Époque.
Literary realism and naturalism achieved new heights. Among the most famous
realist or naturalist authors are Benito Pérez Galdós, Theodor Fontane, Guy de
Maupassant and Émile Zola. Realism gradually developed into modernism, which
emerged in the 1890s and came to dominate European literature during the Belle
Époque's final years and throughout the interwar years. Among the most prominent
European modernist authors are Andrei Bely, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Franz
Kafka, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, Marcel Proust, Arthur
Schnitzler, Robert Walser and William Butler Yeats.
"OUF, PLUS DE PEUR QUE DE MAL !!" (***):
escapes assassination attempt by French anarchist "Salson" during his
state visit to Paris. No injury for the Shah of Persia or his entourage. (circa
It can be said that George
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (
by her Pen name "Colette") although a generation apart can be considered each in
their own right as prominent female authors of this era who influenced the
feminist literature and recognition of women's struggle for equal rights and
recognition in a largely male dominated society before the advent of WWI.
Stephen Frears's "Chéri," which opened in France
and Belgium on April 8, is the first major film adaptation of a Colette novel
since Vincente Minnelli's "Gigi"(1958).
That classic musical about a young lady being preened for a life as a
courtesan swept the 1958 Oscars with nine wins, including one for the musical
team of Lerner and Loewe.
Colette in 1873, Colette was hailed in her day as France's greatest female
writer. She was known equally for her writings -- among them the novels in the
Claudine series, "The Pure and the Impure" and the libretto to Ravel's opera
"L'Enfant et les Sortileges" -- and for her scandalous love life. She didn't do
much to conceal the latter, which in the course of three marriages included
countless affairs with men and women, even one with her stepson.
The slender, semi
autobiographical volume "Chéri," which tells of an aging courtesan's love affair
with a 19-year-old boy, is Colette's best-known novel. It is the prime example
of Colette's prose style, which has been described as impressionistic in
reference to its precise, sensual style whose economy also strikes the reader as
In the moralistic atmosphere
of 1950s Hollywood, it was tricky to present Colette's account of the risqué
demimondaine, and its glorification of the courtesans who relied on wealthy
playboys and aristocrats to live in a state of opulence. Minnelli's solution was
to mask the morally problematic content with a color-drenched tribute to fin de
siecle Paris re-created with the help of costumer and production designer Cecil
The candy-colored Paris of "Gigi"is the
world of Renoir, Seurat, Boudin and Toulouse-Lautrec. Minnelli takes much
pleasure in conjuring up impressionistic and art nouveau tableaus. These
distract us from the parallels between the role of the courtesan and
prostitution, creating an imaginary aura of innocence.
Frears aided by Darius Khondji's
cinematography certainly relishes in re-creating this fascinating world, and the
several filming locations for "Chéri" include a villa designed and owned by
Hector Guimard, who designed the entrances for the Paris Metro, and the
legendary Maxim's restaurant, which was also featured prominently in "Gigi".
behind the elaborate coiffures, hats and overstuffed sitting rooms, Frears
engages more faithfully with his source material than Minnelli could a
Indeed, the task of producing a watchable
adaptation of "Chéri" was too tall for Colette herself. "Adapting something like
'Chéri' even defeated her," according to an interview given to the Wall Street
Journal, screenwriter Christopher Hampton, in reference to a French version of "Chéri"
(starring Marcelle Chantal and Jean Dessailly in the title roles) from the 1950s
whose screenplay Colette wrote. He adds that Colette's screenplay "doesn't look
to have caught whatever the quality of the novel is."
One challenge lay in finding
a way to capture the ambiance of the novel. "It is tone and atmosphere as
opposed to plot and narration, which is easier," Mr. Hamilton says. Another was
researching to capture a historical milieu, which Colette often assumes that the
reader is familiar with.
Actress Michelle Pfeiffer
says she delved into Colette's life to prepare for her role as the aging
courtesan Léa. And while she created Léa in her own image, Colette always
hovered close by. "I focused a lot on Colette and who she was," Ms. Pfeiffer
explained in an interview in Berlin. "She was definitely a woman who was
considered scandalous. She was ahead of her time."
Pfeiffer feels that
Christopher Hampton's dialogue has nailed the novel square on the head. "It's so
well matched with Colette. So it's almost hard to separate her voice from his
voice," she explains. One strategy that Messrs. Hampton and Frears hit upon was
to include a narrated prologue that quickly sketches the world of the courtesan.
Mr. Frears himself provides the narration. "Actually it's exactly what they did
in 'Gigi.' That was what Maurice Chevalier does," says Mr. Frears, referring to
the dandyish Honoré Lachaille, played by Chevalier, who periodically steps out
of the film to address the audience in "Gigi."
"He says 'this is this
person,' 'that is that person' and 'thank heaven for little girls.' It's such a
bizarre world. You have to explain it."
Mr. Frears came to the
project having read only the script. While making a period picture always
presents its unique challenges, Mr. Frears says that what was most difficult was
striking the right tone. "It was getting the right pitch. It's a tragic story
about frivolous people," he says.
While the world of "Chéri"
is so utterly different from our own, neither Mr. Frears nor Mr. Hampton felt
the need to modernize. "She's just a remarkable writer and very mature and has
an enormous amount of insight into the human heart," says Mr. Hampton, adding
that these are qualities that make Colette vital and relevant today. "All great
writers are modern. Sophocles is modern. Otherwise they're no good. You don't
want to read them anymore." (/ **)
Khondji is without exaggeration considered today as one of the most creative
professionals in his field. Not surprising therefore that British director
Stephen Frearschose him
to work on Chéri. Khondji has been at the forefront of Cinematography
thanks to his innovative lighting and filming in such films like Marc Caro
(1991)and City of Lost Children
(1995) or David Fincher's Se7enthat
opened the doors to other Hollywood productions ranging from Alan Parker's
which he was nominated for an Oscar® for the Best Cinematography in 1997)to Sidney Pollack's last feature film:
Born in Iran
( formerly Persia),
to an Iranian Father and French mother, Darius Khondjigrew up in
Tehran before leaving with his family for France where he attended school and
further education. He became interested in film early on
and made Super-8 films in his teens. Later in life, he moved to the United
States to study at UCLA
and then majored in film from New York University
and the International Center for Photography. During this period two teachers
influenced his decision to become a cinematographer:
and Haig Manoogian (Martin
film teacher). Khondji
cites Gregg Toland
( Citizen Kane) as his favorite cinematographer and also admires John Ford's
The Grapes of Wrath,
and James Wong Howe's
work, in particular Hud.
Khondji has said that his dream project would be a 16mm black and white film of
On the Road.
His upcoming work will be on Chinese director Kar Wai Wong's remake of an Orson
Welles film entitled The Lady From Shanghaialso a period piece set in the 1930's, in which a mysterious woman
who claims that she came from Shanghai has a dangerous affair with a spy. It is
the second collaboration between Khondji and Kar Wai Wong after their work on
My Blueberry Nights.
In the meantime
the son of a Cinema Theater manager from Tehran, Iran, has come a long way into
becoming one of the most respected and demanded cinematographers in the world
and whose talented eye remains focused on beauty ...