Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Cheri (2009)

The best moment in Cheri comes late in the film as the camera lingers on a close-up of a woman’s face as the narrator matter-of-factly states that a character’s demise is the direct result of wanting this woman but being unable to get her back. As the statement spills from the narrator’s mouth we stare at the woman, this sad beauty who stares out at us. Then the shot continues, lingering a moment longer than expected. It’s devastating, or rather, nearly so. To be truly devastating, the film would have had to work harder to be less of a frothy bauble, or at least more fun.

The film stars Michelle Pfeiffer as an aging courtesan in early 1900s France who finds herself falling in love with Cheri (Rupert Friend), a much younger man. They have an affair that is complicated only by the fact that Pfeiffer is friends with Cheri’s mother (Kathy Bates) who wishes to marry her son off to the daughter of another high society member. The movie titters and gossips along with these, and other, wealthy ladies, flitting from one scandal to another, ruminating on love lives and dishing all the dirt.

This is an exquisite froth that never truly delights, a romance that never truly swoons, and a drama that stays too surface to move. As a soap-operatic melodrama, Cheri never kicks up enough heat. The characters are superficially developed, leaving the audience out of the affair. There’s never a sense that the characters care about each other. Cheri, and all those around him, remain blank canvases. For all the light, delightful moments from Pfeiffer and Bates, there’s a never a real sense of what makes these people behave the ways they do, other than vague nods towards the societal context.

The film is well mounted, handsomely shot by Stephen Frears, who has made great films in the past (most recently The Queen and High Fidelity) and will hopefully make them again in the future, but this film is nothing more than pretty, vacant, people moving through pretty landscapes and architecture, which brings me back to the narrator (Stephen Frears), who observes and comments on it all. Most of the important events in the film, both internal and external, are either redundantly narrated or narrated without being shown at all. He’s (apologies to Mr. Frears, who’s voice is certainly pleasant) a total detriment, only adding to the sense of forced frivolity, the sense of watching someone else play with dolls while we strain over his shoulder to watch and understand.

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