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Michelle Pfeiffer and the Creepshow Aura of Stephen Frears’s Cheri

One thing that Michelle Pfeiffer can’t be blamed for are the sins that the camera and the make-up artist perpetrate.

Michelle Pfeiffer and the Creepshow Aura of Stephen Frears's Cheri
Photo: Miramax Films

There was a brief spell in the late 1980s when Michelle Pfeiffer had me completely enamored. Granted, our romance lasted only two films, Married to the Mob and The Fabulous Baker Boys, but that is longer than some romances last, whether onscreen or in life.

I haven’t seen either movie for well over ten years; I’ve no idea if I would recognize in them now what spoke to me so clearly then, but in the summer of ‘88, seeing Married to the Mob, what would prove to be Jonathan Demme’s last film of pure delight before he turned falsely serious, became almost a weekly ritual, with me slipping into matinees six or seven times. In retrospect, it may have been the animus between Mercedes Ruehl and Dean Stockwell that kept me coming back for more, and most of what gave Mob its kick—its subliminal weirdness, such as the Chris Isaak robbery sequence—had nothing to do with Pfeiffer. Nonetheless, the actress stopped being merely pretty when she worked with Demme and later with Steve Kloves in his valentine to jazz obscurity: she became interesting, too, and after having left few traces through monotonous films for nearly a decade, she had morphed into a fine, light comedienne capable of depth and empathy. And, yes, was stunningly beautiful as well, which rarely hurts. In 1993, Pfeiffer’s reticent, fragile qualities seemed exactly right for the hounded, disgraced Countess Olenska in Martin Scorsese’s off-the-mark adaptation of Edith Wharton’s great novel, The Age of Innocence. (Among other things, the humorless Scorsese completely missed Wharton’s satirical wit, flattening out her incisive lampoons of Old Money, and worse still, scoring a narrative set in the 1870s to Enya—an anachronism as unwelcome as it was uninspired.) Following The Age of Innocence, though, Pfeiffer’s choice of roles grew depressingly mainstream. I stayed away from her films. For some reason, I did catch Jocelyn Moorhouse’s deplorable A Thousand Acres (1997), a movie so heinous it finished off not only my interest in Pfeiffer, but in Jessica Lange to boot. And now, twelve years later, comes Cheri, which, as we all know, reunites our beloved leading lady with the director Stephen Frears and the scenarist Christopher Hampton with whom she collaborated on Dangerous Liaisons twenty-one years ago. I arrived at the screening hoping for reasons to worship at the altar.

It isn’t fair to ask a woman of 50 still to be as sexy and desirable as she was at 30. Some women, true, manage this without missing a trick, getting more alluring as they age. I don’t think that has quite happened with Pfeiffer—not as she’s made to look in Cheri anyway. Even so, her physical appearance here is fair game for criticism precisely because that’s mainly what Cheri concerns itself with. Yet before that, there’s this: the movie is ignominiously bad. Not shrill and offensive, as in Mrs. Henderson Presents, but miscast, poorly acted, poorly written, and “directed” in such a stillborn slog that I wondered if Frears were having an out-of-body experience on the set. On those occasions in the past when Frears seemed to have a strong personality as a filmmaker, the personality invariably belonged to someone else—to Hanif Kureishi, or more recently to Peter Morgan in The Queen, Frears’s most impeccable creation to date. The problems with Cheri, conversely, begin with the shallowness of Hampton’s writing. I haven’t read the two Colette novels that Hampton adapts, but if nothing else, his hack job inspires me to delve into the source, to find out for myself what the French novelist was aiming for in examining middle-aged former courtesans, women who amassed their fortunes largely on the power of their looks. In Hampton’s hands, however, the scenario plays off a once-beautiful woman’s fear of shriveling up into a monstrous hag, which could be valid subject matter were it not for the palpable creepshow aura that Hampton and Frears glaze onto the proceedings: neither man evinces the slightest affection for or understanding of women. As with the issue of the loss of Christian faith in Dangerous Liaisons, Hampton approaches complexities of the heart and mind entirely from the outside in, and then as now, that is why his screenplays fail to convince.

Cheri begins inauspiciously, with a voice-over done by an Englishman in a faux-upper crust style that strives to be light in tone and entertaining, filling us in on the back-story of Belle Époque prostitutes and alerting us to all the decadent naughtiness that’s supposedly ahead. For a moment, I thought Cheri would be another godforsaken marionette show a la Vicky Cristina Barcelona. “Today,” the narrator pipes up, spoon-feeding the viewer overstuffed morsels bit by bit, “she was visiting her former colleague and feared rival.” This type of dismal anti-storytelling shows no faith in either the material to assert itself or the audience to figure it out, yet mercifully, Frears drops the voice-over, for the most part, until the very end when he needs a quick way out of the picture. Left on their own, Pfeiffer, as Léa de Lonval, and Kathy Bates, as Madame Peloux, a pair of drawing-room “frenemies,” trade stiff repartee. The often excellent Bates, who was the best reason to endure the insufferable Revolutionary Road, couldn’t be more unsuited to a frothy, costume period piece. We’re intended to take Peloux as a manipulative vulgarian; the designer, Consolata Boyle, rigs Bates up in a parade of grotesque outfits of frilly brocade that over-emphasize the actress’s plump figure and high neck lines that contort her soft cheeks into quivering mounds of flesh. Which might matter less if Bates had a handle on the role; stranded by Frears, she’s way off pitch. What’s worse, she and Pfeiffer, throughout their several scenes together, have zero rapport. They don’t convey a sense of women who’ve known and competed with each other all their adult lives, and neither demonstrates inner strength, so that their shared intimacies and parlor game rivalries aren’t merely weightless, they feel uninhabited, as if the screen were going blank.

Pfeiffer has to share in the blame for this. When first we spy her, standing alone on her balcony at night, Pfeiffer’s Léa looks wistfully lovely, and she has a winsome moment as she slips between the silks in her boudoir, asking her faithful maid, “Is there anything better than a bed all to oneself?” Soon enough, though, it’s apparent that Pfeiffer’s heart isn’t in Hampton’s un-artful dodges. Gaunt rather than svelte, she seems like a stranger. And she (deliberately?) brings nothing to the part, thus agitating the alienation effect into high gear. She reads her lines sans enthusiasm, at times sounding nearly as nasal as Gwyneth Paltrow, in a voice so thin I expected it to crack and wither like parchment. I kept waiting for a sign that the old/young Pfeiffer still lurked within, yet if she’s there, the actress withholds that part of herself.

What Pfeiffer can’t be blamed for are the sins that the camera and the make-up artist perpetrate. I would love to know what lens the cinematographer Darius Khondji used to make the star’s skin so creaseless while at the same time going gauzily adrift at the four corners of the frame. I’ve marveled at Khondji’s work in the past, most recently in Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights, and summer in Central Park has rarely looked more beguiling on film than as Khondji shot it in Woody Allen’s underrated Anything Else. The outdoor scenes in Cheri, alas, present us with greenery bathed in lemon light, the focus warped around the edges, as if the forest were falling prey to funhouse mirrors. I’m guessing that Khondji might have wanted to evoke a sense of Alphonse Mucha’s poster art, with the light defusing through shades of golden brown and yellow, and with Léa, the flowing-tressed muse at their center. It’s an odd effect, though, and I was never taken in by it. Where the filmmakers, in their concerted effort at fostering the illusion that Pfeiffer retains her youth, truly negate their intentions lies in the handiwork of make-up designer Daniel Phillips, who coats Pfeiffer’s face with such heavy foundation that it lends her countenance a distinctly unhealthy, pale grey pallor—rather as if she had been embalmed. All this jazz in the press, such as the computer-generated Vanity Fair puff piece proclaiming her “still smoldering hot” is just wishful publicizing.

In the third major role, as the boy whom Léa nicknames Cheri, the longhaired, thin-lipped Rupert Friend comes across more as early ‘80s glam than turn of the last century bon vivant. With his milky complexion, pouty persona, dark locks, and a singular talent for sucking down cigarettes, Friend suggests a Duran Duran cover band hopeful. To say that the movie rides on his ass literally as well as figuratively would not be an exaggeration. In the absence of insight or compelling characterization, Frears and Hampton bank all their hopes on the sex scenes between Friend and Pfeiffer, and on Friend’s contrived nudity in general. (It was someone’s idea that Friend play out a lover’s quarrel while towel-drying his fluffy armpits.) Unfortunately, for this viewer, at least, the couplings between Pfeiffer, born in 1958, and Friend, born in 1981, carry no erotic frissons at all. If I found the boy attractive, there might be some joy in watching Pfeiffer bed down with a kid young enough to be her son. Friend, however, isn’t an exciting physical presence, and no matter how frequently he’s bandied about bare-chested, or fetishized when smoking, he doesn’t become any less un-exciting. Colette, according to Hampton, was going for a reversal of gender traits, with the man being soft and docile while his businesswoman paramour held all the cards. With Pfeiffer and Friend in the roles, their performances are interchangeably androgynous; there’s no heat.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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