The Belle Époque World of Chéri (2009)

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Based on the novel, Chéri with a little bit of the sequel La Fin de Chéri, by Collette, Chéri (2009) tells of the charmingly tragic (or is it tragically charming?) love affair between retired courtesan Léa (Michelle Pfeiffer) and the much younger son of her colleague, Fred, whom everyone calls Chéri (Rupert Friend). He reenters her life at the age of 19, a dissolute and beautiful young man who has too much money and nothing better to do with his life than whore it up in the high-end brothels of Belle Époque Paris. Chéri’s mother, the vastly wealthy former courtesan, Madame Charlotte (Kathy Bates), essentially throws him into the arms of Léa in what would appear to be an attempt to protect him from succumbing to the seedier amusements that he’s been flirting with. It’s a strange strategy by modern standards, but I guess it made sense at the time, considering the society Léa and Charlotte exist in.

Like all Stephen Frears’ films, this one is gorgeous from top to bottom. Notable locations include the Hôtel Mezzara, designed by Hector Guimard that stands in as Léa’s elegant Art Nouveau home, the restaurant Maxim’s, and the Hôtel Biarritz. Consolata Boyle, who often works with Frears, designed the costumes.

Léa is old enough to be Chéri’s mother, and he definitely has something of an Oedipal fixation with Léa, whom he nicknamed Nounoune as a child and continues to call her that throughout the film. It definitely underscores the fact that Chéri is emotionally stunted and Léa is an enabler in continuing to act as his protector. He dresses in her silk pajamas, prances around in her jewelry, pouts and flounces about like the worst of spoiled children, and yet, he’s an adult man and just when the dynamic between the two threatens to go full-on Oedipal, he suddenly subverts it by turning into the dominant partner. Talk about a study in Freudian psychology.

For the most part Léa seems pretty self-aware of the situation that she’s actively enabling, but things take a turn for the serious when she finds out about Chéri’s engagement to the daughter of another courtesan, a somewhat plain and vapid girl named Edmée. Léa suddenly realizes 1) that she’s in love with Chéri; 2) there’s no logical way she can be with him; and 3) she’s old and Chéri’s life is really just getting started when hers is winding down. Were they closer in age, it might have worked, but she’s in her 50s, and he needs to start a family soon.

When life delivers a broken heart, you put on a fabulous suit and go to the South of France.

Lea’s teal silk velvet jacket and gown. Via The Prop Store.

I think the thing about the film that really resonated with me was the whole question of the desirability of an aging woman. I’m on the brink of 40 and I find myself wondering that a lot lately, so this felt pretty timely for me. I don’t think the film resolves this in any way, but it doesn’t really shy away from it–even though Michelle Pfeiffer is undeniably better preserved than most women in their 50s (a fact that was harshly pointed out over and over in the press when the film came out), she still has that chameleon-like ability to look young when the light is soft and look “of a certain age” when the light is less kind. I couldn’t help imagining what an actress like Helen Mirren would have done with the role, though. Of course, I tend to wonder that about a lot of roles in films. I suppose she was probably too old to play Léa, which is pretty ironic…

As for Rupert Friend, an actor that I’ve never been that into, holy moly, YES PLEASE. Something about that mop of dark hair and those glittering blue eyes, and all the fantastically tailored suits… It was a pleasure watching him. And even then, just when you thought that he was such a little shit, why would anyone of Léa’s caliber give him ten minutes of her time, let alone ten years of her life, he manages to redeem himself. Even when he’s in the process of realizing that Léa is actually too old to build a life with, it’s not with cruelty that he comes to this conclusion. It’s a painful moment of realization that they both struggle to accept before the inevitable happens.

And one final mention — the fabulous Kathy Bates. She chews the scenery with absolute glee the whole way and, and that sequined gown she wears when she visits Léa at her home is TO. DIE. FOR.

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

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Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, she enjoys the solitude of a long, hot bath. You can find her costuming trails and tribulations chronicled at Mode Historique.

3 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    This is one of my favourite Belle Epoque/Art Nouveau films. Clothes, as you mentioned are to die for. It’s romantic and real simultaneously. You glimpse a world of the most successful courtesans of Paris during the era of the fictional Gigi, the great actress Sarah Bernhardt, and Proust’s muse and fashion-setter Elizabeth Countess Greffuhle: their lives, children, wealth and the world is beautiful.

    Reply
  2. Kaitlyn

    The dresses were amazing! Lea’s bed was also beautifully Art Nouveau. Kathy Bates is always fun to watch and especially so when she’s in historical costume.

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