Stephen Frears burst on the scene in 1985 with his cheeky “My Beautiful Laundrette,” igniting a winning streak that included “Prick Up Your Ears,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Grifters” and “The Queen.” Though famously hard to pigeonhole, the genre-spanning filmmaker gravitates toward folks struggling on the social margins or engaged in emotional gamesmanship. Frears is also, famously, a royal pain to interview. He almost defies you to extract responses from him, looking simultaneously gleeful and contrite, so you somehow empathize with him. In a sit-down for his new film “Cheri,” he was reliably armored — perhaps because his antennae are exquisitely attuned to pick up what he might call a “dodgy” reaction to his latest project.
More than two decades after “Liaisons,” “Cheri” reunites Frears with ace screenwriter Christopher Hampton and Michelle Pfeiffer. Set in Belle Époque Paris, the saucy tragicomedy centers on the sumptuous world of courtesans — demimondaines — banned from polite society, yet another of Frears’ fringe groups. Pfeiffer plays Lea de Lonval, a retired, still-seductive courtesan who’s ambushed by love for boy toy Cheri (Rupert Friend), the wayward son of her former rival played by Kathy Bates.
To date the critical consensus on “Cheri” has been mixed. The coifs, costumes, and art deco interiors of Hector Guimard are to die for, and Rupert Friend makes a dishy Cheri. But Kathy Bates is incongruous as a Grand Guignol grotesque who resembles a former courtesan about as much as Mrs. Thatcher. And Pfeiffer is a bit of a tease. Though you could be forgiven for expecting an Anglo-Saxon breakthrough film with a 50-year-old heroine as an object of desire, most of the time Pfeiffer looks, well, 30-something. Her Lea is more about cosmetically contrived youth than the earthy, sensual and maternal temptress of Colette’s novella. Maybe it’s Brit reserve, but “Cheri” never nails this very Gallic, very naughty world of women who have parlayed sexual savoir faire into gemstones — or conveys Colette’s knowing take on the intersection of desire and love. Fresh off a cigarette he’s been sneaking on the terrace, Frears greets me with, “You rather look like Colette.” So far so good.
How is Colette’s “Cheri,” published in 1920, relevant for viewers today?
It’s about rich people. It all comes tumbling down in the end. [laughs]
How about the love story of an older woman and a much younger man?
I can see it would have been more subversive when she wrote it. It’s unremarkable now.
So you see it primarily as a story about rich people?
[Irritably] Well, I’m not sure that’s how I see it, but it’s one of the things that I liked about it.
The film is gorgeous to look at, but the display of wealth is also a bit disturbing.
Yes, one man stood up and was appalled, absolutely apoplectic about it. “Why do you make movies about such worthless people?” Well, of course, they’re not worthless — their values are just different. Then it all comes crashing down.
Are you drawing a parallel in the film to what’s going on in the global economy now?
Well, you’re trying to force me into some position that I’m not sure is entirely mine. [laughs]
How would you put it then?
I don’t know, I don’t ask those questions. I just liked it when I read it. I thought, “This is rather wonderful.” I don’t sit around thinking is this relevant or is that relevant. I mean, how is “The Queen” relevant? It’s a preposterous institution in Britain — it’s not at all relevant. So I don’t really think about relevance. You’re more obsessed with this business of speaking to people today than I am. I’m probably rather unworldly.
What is “Cheri” saying about the male/female dynamic?
People say to me, you always make movies about strong women.
Okay, what does the Lea/Cheri romance say about men and women?
That the unconscious is more powerful than the conscious.