“It’s funny, I just finished doing a movie with Kathy Bates (“Personal Effects”) in which I have an affair with her son,” said Michelle Pfeiffer in Berlin for her role in Stephen Frears’ “Cheri,” which also stars Bates. “I guess the older I get, the younger my co-stars…” And such is the core of Frears’ “Cheri,” a period piece set in the Belle Epoque era of early 20th century Paris. Pfeiffer and Bates play aging courtesans who have made a career in attracting kings, aristocrats and others in the upper echelons of society who lavish wealth on them for their company. Pfeiffer plays one of the most successful of the women, Lea, who has retired from her trade living off the fruits of her many successes. One day she visits her old rival, Mme Peloux (Bates).
Though the two do not care much for each other, they nevertheless engage in respectful interaction on occasion. While at lunch, Pfeiffer encounters Peloux’s young son, Cheri (Rupert Friend), who leads a life of debaucherous indulgence. His mother wants him to eventually settle down, but first she solicits Lea’s help in “making him a man.” She obliges – and what was meant to be a short term trist evolves into a passionate love affair that lasts six years. The affair, however, is interrupted when Mme Peloux arranges for Cheri to be married to a pretty 18 year-old and her large dowery. The abrupt end to their relationship then brings on a tidal wave of misery and personal intrigue.
“I was thrilled when Stephen Frears called me about this,” said Pfeiffer who starred twenty years ago in Frears’ “Dangerous Liaisons.” She also noted the parallels of age both at the time of “Cheri” and now, being quite open about her own age. “If you think hitting 40 is liberating, wait until you hit 50. The anticipation of hitting it is worse – then it happens and you’re greatful for what you have and, you know, it’s better then the alternative.”
Screenwriter Christopher Hampton told an audience in Berlin Tuesday afternoon that he was surprised that Frears wanted to do the film, which he adapted from a book by French writer Colette. “Stephen and I often have luch together and he asked me, ‘why haven’t you let me read your script for ‘Cheri,” and I said, ‘you wouldn’t like it.'” Frears sees the story beyond the sumptuous costumes and plush lives that women in this circle lived in that period in Paris.
“[The tragedy] is in the novel and the script. There’s the clothes and material things and there was the tragedy underneath,” Frears noted. “Colette was clever and Christopher was clever and it’s all very, very tragic.”
Asked whether he thought audiences would relate to a film of such wealth and extravagance during this period of financial crisis, Frears admitted he wasn’t sure, though looked to another time when films served as a moment to forget the problems of life. “Of course in the depression people would see Fred Astaire films. There is a sense of escapism in films, but I suppose we’ll see if people can relate to it. The fact of the matter is, the women in this period were really really wealthy.”