25 October 2009 | gradyharp
Stephen Frears has created some powerful and very well crafted movies: 'Dangerous Liaisons', 'My Beautiful Laundrette', 'The Grifters', 'The Queen', 'Prick up your Ears', 'Dirty Pretty Things', etc. One would expect that his experience in dealing with edgy issues would make him the perfect choice for adapting the famous French writer of 'naughty novels' - Colette - but somewhere in the flow of this production, perhaps in the Christopher Hampton's adaptation of the novel to screenplay, the original stories become perfumed and sanitized. And the reasons why this happened remain obscure.
The story is simple: courtesans in Paris must eventually retire form their lives of becoming wealthy through pleasing men of the higher class, and either they live out their lives in the luxuries of fluff or they must confront their aging and feel pangs of remorse as they end their lives alone, without a man to bolster them. Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer) has been longtime 'friends' with Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates), even to the point of nurturing Madame's son Chéri (Rupert Friend) as he approaches manhood. Madame asks Lea to 'polish' Chéri for other women and after what might have been a brief fling in Normandy, the young Chéri and the aging Lea fall into a six year relationship. But as Madame realizes she needs grandchildren, she eventually finds a proper girl Edmee (Felicity Jones) for Chéri to marry. The remainder of the story is how these two age-disparate characters adapt to the 'social rules' of La Belle Epoque, suggesting that even under extraordinary circumstances the power of love is an issue that must be confronted.
Despite the performances by Pfeiffer and Friend (and even the miscast Bates) the story feels somehow sterile. Perhaps it is the out of place use of a male narrator who gives the film an unnecessary feeling of being a documentary, or the somewhat overused musical score of Alexandre Desplat, or the emphasis on costumes that hardly add to the beauty of Pfeiffer as Lea that keep the production grounded. It is a pleasant enough film, but hardly a memorable one. Grady Harp