It’s devilishly hard to get everything to go right on a movie. Many little things can turn a promising project into something that never quite gels. Going in, the French/British/German co-production Cheri–adapted by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons) from two Colette novels, directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen) and starring still-lovely 51-year-old actress Michelle Pfeiffer in the starring role of an aging courtesan– must have looked so tempting.
Several factors doomed this project to be a noble failure. While the English-language movie aimed at global audiences has long been a cinema staple, moviegoers now demand too much authenticity. J.J. Abrams (Lost), Mel Gibson (The Last Temptation of Christ, Apocalypto) and Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds) are right: go local with language and slap on subtitles. At least it’s real.
Put too many people from different countries into one milieu, though, and something starts to go wrong. (Think Cold Mountain or Tetro.) Here, wily American actresses Pfeiffer and Kathy Bates don’t quite match up with a cast of Brits, including the narrator (Frears) and the jejune title character, played by Rupert Friend. (He’s almost too pretty and fey.)
Top European craftspeople did beautiful work on Cheri–the sets and costumes are exquisite. But Alexandre Desplat’s elegant score, while the Frenchiest thing about the movie, isn’t enough to tip the scales.
Even back in 1958 the MGM classic Gigi, while patently stylized and shot on a studio back lot, deployed real French actors Maurice Chevalier and Louis Jourdan and singer/dancer Leslie Caron to sell the audience. It worked. Would such a fake confection work today?
Everyone knew the rules then. Nowadays, the lines keep moving and shifting between docu-reality and drama, super-fantasy and romantic intimacy. Each director has to somehow intuit where the lines are drawn on what audiences will and won’t accept.