The Late Show — Slight Return

Unusually, I’ve gathered a bunch of writings by friends this week, so my duties are limited to hosting and introducing. This is not due to laziness or disinterest, I assure you: it’s just that I have some talented friends…

First up, Phoebe Green offers a late entry for The Late Movies Blogathon, casting a sympathetic eye over the final movie of Marcelle Chantal ~

CHÉRI: THE LAST OF CHANTAL

Pierre Billon’s Chéri (1950), based on Colette’s novels Chéri and La Fin de Chéri, was the last film of Marcelle Chantal.

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Most biographical references claim Marcelle Chantal (1901-1960) was the sheltered child of a banking family; however Christine Leteux—film historian, Natan researcher, and archivist extraordinaire—was kind enough to provide me with a copy of the official record registering Chantal’s birth to an artiste lyrique, father unnamed. She did marry an American banker, whose open-handed indulgence (in 1934 he rented the Théâtre des Champs Elysées and made her general manager) raised her profile and a few hackles. Her first screen appearance was as a teenager in Marcel L’Herbier’s Le carnaval des vérités; her apogee was the 1930s, when she queened it at Les Studios Paramount and Pathé Natan, directed by Cavalcanti, Tourneur, Ozep. She was tall, elegant, strong-featured, a wow in draped satin or riding habit, but a trifle chill and starchy—Kay Francis as cold potato.

Marcelle Chantal had a history, onscreen and off, with Colette. In 1935, Gertrude Stein (as “Baby Woojums”) wrote Carl Van Vechten (“Papa Woojums”) in New York to alert him to Colette’s arrival on the Normandie[1] with her third husband, adding that Marcelle Chantal would be traveling with them and staying, as they would, at the Waldorf. Honi soit qui mal y pense. Chantal played the eponymous heroine in La Vagabonde,[2] was miscast as the rich wife (supposed to be young and orientally luscious) of Julie de Carneilhan’s ex-husband—perhaps star Edwige Feuillère had a hand in that—and, a sumptuous farewell, Léa in Chéri.

The Chéri novels, although gay with Belle Époque décor and mores, are poignantly valedictory. Lovers part forever, time-crossed. These books mark a moment—not the first, but perhaps the most important—when Colette’s art turned and looked backward.

Colette, in her life and her writing, seems Janus-faced between modernity and nostalgia. She leaps forward in order to look back. One thinks of her marriage and the ensuing ghostwriter’s mind-meld that produced the Claudine novels, assuming the viewpoint of her husband/impresario Willy—who himself adopted the lofty yet wistful salaciousness of a roué twice his age.

She loved but feared being trapped in the enchanted garden of her childhood, her mother’s realm—until distance, family deaths, and time reduced it to the safely englobed magic of one of her cherished glass paperweights.

Her Chéri and La Fin de Chéri, although apparently and chronologically sequential, are in fact two different perspectives on the same doomed couples: Léa de Lonval, a Parisian grande horizontale nearing the mellow end of a long and remunerative career, and Fred Peloux, “Chéri,” the son of Charlotte, Léa’s friend and fellow courtesan: a beautiful boy half her age.

In the first novel, Chéri leaves Léa for a marriage of reason (settlements scrupulously negotiated) with Edmée, a girl his own age. Both he and Léa are more shaken than they dreamed possible. Chéri bolts back to Léa, and for a moment it seems they will elope together—then both acknowledge that if he stays with her, he will never grow up. He leaves her house, escaping the maternal/erotic spell, towards manhood and the future.

The second novel, set shortly after the Great War, finds Chéri back from the trenches, disconnected from the times and his marriage, from everything but his memory of Léa. He tries to return to her once again, and, in a masterpiece of a scene, finds only a sturdy, unsexed old woman with his beloved’s eyes and voice. He is briefly soothed by a meeting with the “Old Pal,” a hanger-on of his mother’s generation, who lets him look at her collection of photographs of Léa, listen to her reminiscences of Léa. Realizing this last consolation will inevitably lose its savor, he shoots himself. In this version, he does not break free, but is reabsorbed into the past.

Billon’s scenarist Pierre Laroche (Les Visiteurs du Soir and Lumière d’Été, among others—most pertinently the Colette adaptations Gigi, Minne, and Mitsou, directed by his wife Jacqueline Audry and starring Danièle Delorme) solves the construction problem that hobbled the recent Frears adaptation by presenting the events of Chéri as a flashback within the closing episode of La Fin de Chéri. The film begins with Chéri running into the Old Pal, immediately after the terrible final visit to Léa (only referred to, not shown). The Old Pal brings him back to her place, where a photograph of Charlotte’s circle naturally dissolves back to the moment it was taken …

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Billon’s Chéri is solidly satisfying on first viewing, though perhaps weakest at its center. The aging grotesques of Charlotte’s circle are flawless:

Yvonne de Bray as the Old Pal:

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Jane Marken as Charlotte:

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Maïa Poncet as the Baroness:

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and Marcelle Derrien as the deceptively resilient young girl:

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But at first viewing, the leads are physically disappointing. One longs for stars with the immediate erotic power of Simone Signoret for Léa (who came to Paris from Normandy as farm-fresh Léonie Vallon) and perhaps Rudolf Valentino as the dark-haired beauty who paralyses shop girls as he passes (“Let’s touch him and see if he’s real!”).

Nevertheless, Jean Desailly assumes Chéri’s nervy, hopeless boyishness, the misery of a sleepy child who will not go to bed without a promised kiss:

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And finally, Marcelle Chantal captures both the corseted impeccability Léa wears in public

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and the voluptuousness she reveals to Chéri.

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Our last glimpse of Léa is as she watches Chéri leave her for Edmée and, he hopes, manhood (the last episode of Chéri).

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Although she haunts the film and its protagonist, she is not seen again, even in photographs. Billon avoids the foreseeable irony of raising the camera from the suicide on the divan to the portrait above.

Marcelle Chantal, similarly discreet, retired to Switzerland and died there ten years later.

***

[1] Also on board, though not one of the party: Bertrand de Jouvenel, Colette’s stepson from her second marriage and, from his sixteenth to twentieth year, her lover.

[2] This film maudit, directed by twenty-four-year-old Solange Bussi with the assistance of Colette’s daughter Colette de Jouvenel, was repudiated by Colette, scathingly reviewed, and ended up playing the provinces (at least once on a double bill with Tom Mix). Marcelle Chantal subsequently took up residence in a townhouse near the Bois de Boulogne with the dashingly Arzneresque director.

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4 Responses to “The Late Show — Slight Return”

  1. In 2009 Stephen Frears did a fabulous Cheri with the great (and scandalously neglected) Michelle Pfeiffer as Lea and one Rupert Friend as Cheri. Christopher Hampton wrote the screenplay. Kath Bates and the Beyond Legendary Anita Pallenberg also appeared in it. Far Too Hip For The House it found no audience and few critical supporters.

    It should also be noted that in the 60’s a play of Cheri appeared on Broadway with Kim Stanley as Lea and Horst Buchholtz as Cheri. Noticed were mixed and run was short. Alas too short for yours truly to catch it.

  2. david wingrove Says:

    The Frears/Hampton film of CHERI is one of my favourites of recent years. In fact, I like it more than the wildly successful DANGEROUS LIAISONS. Perhaps that’s why I have yet to watch the older French version? I’m certainly curious and I’ve enjoyed Marcelle Chantal in other films by Tourjansky (L’ORDONNANCE) and Ozep (AMOK). Personally, I don’t think Jean Desaiily (or Rupert Friend, for that matter) is hypnotically beautiful enough to play Cheri. You need somebody like the young Alain Delon or Helmut Berger. Mind you, Horst Buchholz sounds ideal!

  3. Agree that it’s shocking how underused Michelle Pfeiffer has been. It can hardly be possibly to age any more beautifully or gracefully than she has done, and her talent is a matter of record.

    I haven’t seen either film so am unqualified to talk about the rival Cheris, but I bet comparison would be fascinating for the different approaches to adaptation, as Phoebe suggests.

  4. An Immortal Goddess of the Cinema for this alone!

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