Frears' 'Cheri' Both Sumptuous And Dark

Director Stephen Frears talks about his movie, Cheri, a romantic drama based on a book by Collette, set in 1920s Paris. In the movie, Michelle Pfeiffer plays a woman who is persuaded to look after a friend's son, and ends up having an affair with him. "People don't stop being human no matter how pretty their clothes are," Frears says.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This weekend, Miramax films released its new movie "Cheri," about a woman who was winding down a long and illustrious career as a prostitute. The film is set in Paris at the turn of the 19th century during the lavish period known as the Belle Epoque. And as the narrator tells us, the ladies of leisure of this era were no ordinary call girls.

(Soundbite of film, "Cheri")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STEPHEN FREARS (Director, "Cheri"): (As narrator) There was Emilian Delonson(ph), who fancied herself as an actress, but was better known as the woman who had all but bankrupted King Leopold II of Belgium.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FREARS: There was Liane de Pougy, who, when shown a million and half Francs worth of jewels by her lover of the moment, became paralyzed with indecision, thus obliging him to buy her the entire display. She later became a nun.

HANSEN: And the list goes on. These were real women. More about Liane in a moment, but Lea, the main character in the movie played by Michelle Pfeiffer is fictional. The film is based on a 1920 novel "Cheri," written by Colette. "Cheri" is directed and narrated by Stephen Frears, who in 1988 was behind the lens for the film, "Dangerous Liaisons," which also featured Michelle Pfeiffer, and he's in our London studio. Welcome to the program.

Mr. FREARS: Hello, hello.

HANSEN: First, I really want to mention the courtesan, the real one, Liane de Pougy, whom you mentioned at the beginning, I'm actually named after her.

Mr. FREARS: Congratulations.

HANSEN: I guess.

Mr. FREARS: Or commiseration, one or the other.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: I guess it is. I always ask my mother, where did you get the spelling of my name, L-I-A-N-E?

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

HANSEN: And she said, oh, I read it in a, you know, in the paper. And Liane de Pougy died in 1950 when she was pregnant with me. So, I've always thought - I bought her biography, so, I thought, you know, you kind of skated over her a little bit, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: …I'll allow it.

Mr. FREARS: How distinguished for you.

HANSEN: I guess. Does this mean I become a nun at the end of my career? And I've never seen that many jewels in my life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: But enough about me. Let's talk about your movie. For our listeners who haven't seen it yet, is it possible to just to give us just a brief kind of thumbnail synopsis of the new film "Cheri?"

Mr. FREARS: Well, these courtesans lived extraordinary lives. They were very, very rich women. They were, you know, like sort of movie stars, really, except they kept to their own world very much. And as you said, Michelle Pfeiffer plays a woman at the end of her career, but who's persuaded by her friend to look after her and to educate and to have a relationship with her son, with whom she rather unexpectedly falls in love.

HANSEN: Hmm. That's the gist of it.

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

HANSEN: And there's pain, there's sex and there's great costumes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FREARS: Well, it's both frivolous and tragic at the same time.

HANSEN: That's it, there's a duality there.

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

HANSEN: I mean, we're looking at this sumptuous scenes of these beautiful couches and…

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

HANSEN: …all of this. But underneath there's this current of blackness maybe?

Mr. FREARS: Well, people don't stop being human, do they?

HANSEN: No.

Mr. FREARS: No matter how pretty the clothes are.

HANSEN: But it seems particularly poisonous during this time.

Mr. FREARS: Well, it was a decadent time because it all came to an end with the First World War, just the wealthy times we've lived through have come to an end now.

HANSEN: Hmm. What was it that attracted you to the project? I mean, it's a Colette story and you almost can't go wrong with that. But, on the other hand, you've done these costume dramas before, "Dangerous Liaisons," to connect.

Mr. FREARS: Well, I'm very - I'm very, very lucky that I'm introduced to French literature by Christopher Hampton, who wrote the script of "Dangerous Liaisons" and this script. So, it's always filtered through this extremely witty surface that he constructs. So I read his script and liked it very much. And then I read the book and liked that very much. So, I had a good introduction.

HANSEN: And then it was a matter of coloring in…

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

HANSEN: …you know. I read in an interview with you in The New York Times, and I was - you say you direct with your ears. What do you mean by that?

Mr. FREARS: You can hear when - you can hear conviction in people's voices. You can hear when people believe what they're saying. You can hear when they hit the right notes.

HANSEN: Hmm.

Mr. FREARS: You can more hear conviction than you can see it. What you see is whether actors hit their right marks and things like that. But what you hear is the truth.

HANSEN: Well, let's actually listen to a little bit of dialogue between Lea, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, and Cheri, played by Rupert Friend, after they've shared their first kiss.

(Soundbite of film, "Cheri")

Ms. MICHELLE PFEIFFER (Actress): (As Lea de Lonval) I'm not sure that was very intelligent. What? Oh, you think I never kissed a handsome mouth before? You think that's going to make me lose control? I mean, even if we were to - not that I can see that happening.

Mr. RUPERT FRIEND (Actor): (As Cheri) You raised the subject.

Ms. PFEIFFER: (As Lea de Lonval): Let's say no more about this, shall we?

HANSEN: And if they said no more about it there wouldn't be a movie, would there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FREARS: Absolutely, absolutely.

HANSEN: But there is, again, one can hear there's the surface line.

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

HANSEN: And then there's the tension under it.

Mr. FREARS: Of course, of course. And that's what - it was a very difficult film to make because you were trying to find that the whole time. Do you play the surface, do you play the underneath?

HANSEN: Right.

Mr. FREARS: And of course you have to do both.

HANSEN: You do. And the audience has to be in mind of both.

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

HANSEN: What, which of the characters do you think needs this relationship more: Lea, who's a woman who's so used to being beautiful and desirable, but now she's getting on, or Cheri, who's this, you know, flippity, young playboy, but is really lost.

Mr. FREARS: Yes. I couldn't answer that question. I would've thought they both needed it.

HANSEN: It does seem so, doesn't it?

Mr. FREARS: Yes, yes.

HANSEN: But it's Cheri's mother, played by Kathy Bates, that seems to throw the two together.

Mr. FREARS: Yes, without quite - you can't work out quite what's in her mind.

HANSEN: Oh, she's a…

Mr. FREARS: She's a shocker.

HANSEN: She is a shocker.

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

HANSEN: She's Cheri's mother. She's a retired courtesan herself.

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

HANSEN: And it's just - it looked - I think we should let our listeners hear just a little bit of her.

(Soundbite of film, "Cheri")

Ms. PFEIFFER: (As Lea de Lonval) You're getting him back in very good condition. I have kept him away from opium and cocaine and the cheap imported drink. I believe you'll find he's a credit to both of us.

Ms. KATHY BATES (Actress): (As Madame Peloux) I'm sure.

Ms. PFEIFFER: (As Lea de Lonval) Doesn't mean that little girl is going to able to handle him.

Ms. BATES: (As Madame Peloux) Young women have their methods.

Ms. PFEIFFER: (As Lea de Lonval) You may be right. I can't say I remember.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BATES: (As Madame Peloux) You smell so good. Don't you find now the skins a little less firm, it holds perfumes so much better?

HANSEN: Yes, Kathy Bates is a real piece of work in this character.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FREARS: Yes. She's the most magnificent actress.

HANSEN: Yes.

Mr. FREARS: She should be on Mount Rushmore, I always think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Why is the relationship between Lea and Charlotte, Cheri's mother, so important to the story?

Mr. FREARS: Well, because in a sense the root of the boy's problems is that the mother was rather neglectful. So, in a way, she's asking Michelle's character to do what she had failed to do as a mother.

HANSEN: Hmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FREARS: So, as it were, maternalness is central to it all.

HANSEN: And Michelle Pfeiffer's character, Lea, becomes a one-woman rehabilitation center?

Mr. FREARS: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FREARS: That's what we're all looking for.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: And that's so interesting that 20 years ago you were directing her…

Mr. FREARS: Yes.

HANSEN: …in another French drama.

Mr. FREARS: That's right.

HANSEN: Do you feel like it was like chapter two of your relationship?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FREARS: No, I just think we are all children when we made "Liaisons."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FREARS: We were like, you know, children allowed into the garden.

HANSEN: I wonder if Michelle Pfeiffer ever talked to you about that. I mean, she doesn't strike me as a woman who is worried about aging.

Mr. FREARS: She was very, very courageous about her, and she made no attempt to conceal anything or she wasn't whispering to the cameraman or talking to the makeup people or anything like that. She just wanted to give her the performance. If that meant looking her age, so be it.

HANSEN: Hmm.

Mr. FREARS: As a man, I spent my time kicking and screaming and moaning about how old I am. I think men handle it far worse than women.

HANSEN: I would not have thought that.

Mr. FREARS: I could see that the moment of acceptance is very painful. But then all the women around me become very, very cheerful and they stop flapping about their appearance the whole time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FREARS: I imagine it's a great weight off their mind.

HANSEN: Yeah. Do you mind if I ask how old you are?

Mr. FREARS: I'm 68.

HANSEN: Oh, you're still young.

Mr. FREARS: Um, doesn't feel that way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Is there something else, anything else you'd like to say about the film?

Mr. FREARS: No, not at all.

HANSEN: But - no…

Mr. FREARS: No, except that it's - it makes me laugh a lot and makes me cry. I don't know what more there is in life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: That sounds like a good movie. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry.

Mr. FREARS: Yes, yes.

HANSEN: Stephen Frears is the director of the new movie "Cheri," starring Michelle Pfeiffer. It was released in theaters this weekend, and he joined us from our London bureau. Mr. Frears, thanks so much.

Mr. FREARS: It's been a pleasure.

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