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 when Stephen Frears invited me to drop in and watch him working with Michelle Pfeiffer and Kathy Bates on his latest project, a new version of Colette’s semi-autobiographical novel Chéri, set in Paris on the eve of World War I.
Chéri is a wry, witty and romantic story about an ageing courtesan, Leah (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 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.
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 ’70s New York; Rainer Fassbinder in Berlin at the same time. 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 decadent Paris during what was a golden age for the upper classes. Few writers have managed to describe the spirit and characters of this era as intimately as Colette. She 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.
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 meet him and writer Christopher Hampton. 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 Frears’s own Dangerous Liaisons made 20 years ago and, like Chéri, starring Michelle Pfeiffer.
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. Pfeiffer adjusts the pace of her descent down a 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. 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 previous scene, there had been one necklace. Coming down the stairs, she wears another. ‘Where’s that line I need?’ barks Frears. ‘Go upstairs into your room and write that f***ing line, please!’ Hampton, like a petulant schoolboy, takes his headphones off 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 it in her stride.
The 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’s 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 is in UAE cinemas from March 25. See next week’s issue for our review.