by Jef Burnham
Now available on DVD from Miramax Films.
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Prostitution is rarely, if ever these days, associated with rags to riches/true love stories such as that of Pretty Woman. Society has, for the most part, adopted a considerably more honest view of prostitution as exploitation, often involving the enslavement of young women. And so the days of romanticizing the oldest profession in the world are coming to an end… but not quite yet. Director Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, The Queen) takes us back to the early 20th Century— the age of high profile courtesans such as Michelle Pfeifer’s Léa— banking his film on the last two minutes of society’s scandalous fascination with prostitutes and courtesans.
Chéri is a very tweely presented story about a boy everyone calls Chéri (Rupert Friend). He is the son of an aging courtesan (Kathy Bates) and becomes involved with yet another aging courtesan (Michelle Pfeiffer) with whom he shares a sordid, one-again off-again affair that is more off-again than on.
Chéri is far below the average of what I’ve come to expect from Frears. It is a formal disaster, originating from the filmmakers’ inability to distinguish the story’s cinematic qualities from its literary ones. This is most obvious in the film’s pacing and narration. To begin with, any half hour of Chéri is crammed with enough material to sufficiently justify at least an hour of screen time. Scenes are so short and the story moves so fast that you feel either you or the filmmakers missed something.
Narration is all but completely taboo in modern cinema. Personally, I can usually overlook the easy-out writing of the narration style of narration used in Chéri. But here it not only gets in the way of the story’s natural movement, but it directly insults the abilities of the actors to act and the audience to perceive. Whenever a dramatic moment occurs, the narration steps in to explain what the characters are feeling, despite the cast’s more than adequate performances. The most insulting piece of narration occurs about halfway through the film. The narrator begins by explaining that the distraught look on Chéri’s face is because he is in fact distraught, and ends with the narrator listing the ambient noises of the current location as though we couldn’t hear glasses clinking and people talking for ourselves.
Chéri just goes to show that even though many classic films have been adaptations of novels, filmmakers often forget that the formal language of literature and cinema do not always overlap. For all its faults, it still looks good thanks to some wonderfully nuanced set design and beautiful cinematography by Darius Khondji.
Special features are slim, including a paltry two deleted scenes (totaling two minutes in running time), and a making-of featurette, the most interesting part of which being the discussion of the set designs.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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