'Chéri': on location with Stephen Frears

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Belle époque Paris. An ageing courtesan and a youthful, spoilt suitor. Stephen Frears’s new movie, ‘Chéri’, is a wry, romantic tale. Filmmaker Don Boyd visits the set, exclusively for Time Out

Directors are understandably wary of interlopers on their set. They can cause unnecessary disruption, inspire distracting curiosity from crew, encourage unwelcome showiness from actors and be especially inhibiting for the director. So I was surprised in the spring of last year when Stephen Frears invited me, a fellow director, to drop in and watch him working with Christopher Hampton, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kathy Bates on a set created within a beautiful art nouveau mansion in Paris. Their project was a new version of Colette’s semi-autobiographical novel ‘Chéri’, set in Paris on the eve of World War I.

On set, Frears is characteristically entertaining. I pick my way through the security guards, technicians, lights, cables and monitors that are obligatory on a big-budget feature to be met with a heartfelt greeting: ‘What are you doing here?’ he barks. As always, his shambolic demeanour belies a sharp intellect and a beady eye that misses nothing. ‘You know Christopher, don’t you?’ He twinkles at Hampton, who is huddled in front of the digital monitor where they had both been scrutinising the last shot. A brief exchange demonstrates the degree to which Frears, now in his late sixties, has the self-confidence to be comfortable with a writer’s permanent presence on his set. And not just any writer: Hampton is one of modern cinema’s elite, the creator of screenplays for ‘Atonement’ and an upcoming remake of ‘East of Eden’ as well as Frears’s own ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ made exactly 20 years ago and, like ‘Chéri’, starring Michelle Pfeiffer.

The world’s greatest cities have been the mysterious added ingredient for so many of cinema’s greatest directors: Federico Fellini in Rome; Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese in the New York of the 1970s; Rainer Fassbinder in Berlin at the same time; Wong Kar-wai in Hong Kong in the 1980s. And, of course, Louis Malle, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut in 1960s Paris. Often, these urban films defined an era – and altered perception of the city itself. Still, these directors and their collaborators – writers, set designers, costume makers, make-up artists, actors, cinematographers – didn’t need to rely on historical records. They were filming the streets in which they lived, incorporating characters who came from their lives and milieu. Their city, as they saw it.

Frears, too, has had an impressive career in this respect. His seminal film ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ was as much about Thatcher’s London as about its fictional characters. After the success of another timely, London-based film, ‘The Queen’, which won Helen Mirren an Oscar, he is going back in time to recreate Colette’s rarefied Paris during the decadent era of la belle époque. Few writers have managed to describe the spirit and characters of this era as intimately as Colette. ‘Chéri’ is a wry, witty and romantic story about an ageing courtesan, Leah (Michelle Pfeiffer), and her doomed relationship with Chéri (Rupert Friend), the very young, spoilt beau who is the son of her best friend, another rich courtesan (a resplendently bitchy Kathy Bates). The drama revolves around the emotional and physical challenges of Leah’s discovery that her erstwhile pupil in the bedroom arts, who has become her lover, is to marry a beautiful 18-year-old, the daughter of a third courtesan.

Colette wrote of what she knew: she had lived in the hedonistic Parisian boudoirs she portrays with such a potent combination of outrageous sensuality and poetry. How were Frears and his collaborators to match her level of authenticity without resorting to the chocolate-box clichés and kitsch imagery that are so often the downfall of period recreations? Great cinema can feed an audience’s appetite for a credible glimpse of the inaccessible and exotic. Wandering around the carefully adapted art nouveau mansion, I realised that Colette’s portrait of a corner of a vanished Parisian way of life had provided Frears with the answer: he was reconstructing the dying years of the fin de siècle courtesan.

In Colette’s time, courtesans – beautiful women who used the arts of seduction to garner wealth and influence – were as familiar a phenomenon as the tabloid celebrities who stalk powerful rich men are today. But theirs was a world which only the elite could penetrate; Colette gave more ordinary folk a glimpse into their interior landscape and their lifestyle.

Frears has always pretended that he has little impact on the contributions of his movie collaborators. But, watching him work, it is obvious that he is unifying their recreation of Colette’s universe. Production designer Alan MacDonald has chosen a perfect conjunction of wallpapers, paintings and furniture from the era; Consolata Boyle’s costumes evoke contemporary fashions. In the scene I watch, Pfeiffer wears a stunning long, green, embroidered dress while Bates, who waits patiently at the bottom of the staircase, has been suitably over-adorned to fit the theatricality of her character.

‘The Queen’ portrayed the interior workings of the British monarchy; with ‘Chéri’ Frears is once again dealing with a very private world dominated by one extraordinary woman. Opening up that world is a complex, painstaking endeavour. Frears’ crew spend nearly two hours shooting 14 takes of a very complicated set-up involving tracks, a massive crane and a moving dolly. Pfeiffer adjusts the pace of her descent down the sumptuous staircase, take by take, rigorously protecting her costume, hair, make-up and performance, while working closely with Frears on the intricacies of individual shots.

Hampton explains to me that he is reluctant to provide Pfeiffer with an extra line he’s been asked to write by Frears to cover a tense confrontation with Chéri’s mother. Witty banter ensues between these two veterans. As if to deflect this, Frears organises an amusing diversion around the mistake in continuity regarding the necklace Pfeiffer is wearing. In the bedroom in the scene before there had been one necklace. Coming down the stairs, she wears another. Penny Eyles, the script supervisor, steers a diplomatic path through the mini crisis. ‘Where’s that line I need?’ barks Frears for a second time. ‘Go upstairs into your room and write that fucking line, please!’ Hampton, like a petulant schoolboy, takes his headphones off, leaves his digital screen and lumbers up the staircase. Frears smiles mischievously: ‘Michelle needs a line at the bottom of the stairs.’ Five takes later and the line is incorporated – Pfeiffer has taken all this in her stride.

The entire process has been particularly interesting because it has shot to pieces Frears’s self-deprecating fiction that he contributes little to the filmmaking process. He tends to downplay his role in steering movie stars through punishing shooting schedules. The reality is that he is on top of all of it. Artists such as Pfeiffer need that control to keep their performances separate from the shambolic chaos of a set. When she is provided with this space, the effortless intelligence she conveys is mesmerising. As skilfully as any courtesan, she seduces us into forgetting our mundane anxieties, drawing us into the fantasies Frears wants us to share.
‘Chéri’ opens on May 8.

Author: Don Boyd



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