An amiable, middle-brow entertainment, “Chantilly Lace” provides a knowing, bittersweet look at the complex lives of modern American women. The film, shown as closing night of the AFI/L.A. Film Fest, will premiere July 18 on Showtime, a cable network that took admirable risks in producing it. Although made for cable , the film’s improvisational structure, strong ensemble acting and polished production values should also facilitate a limited theatrical release.
Though a far cry from George Cukor’s campy and bitchy version of Claire Booth Luce’s “The Women,””Chantilly Lace” is at once an update and a revision of the 1939 film. Like the MGM cult comedy, it features an all-female cast of superlative performers and offers a glimpse into the hearts, souls and minds of a group of educated women.
Outline, conceived by Linda Yellen and Rosanne Ehrlich, allowed for improvisation from the actresses, who reportedly worked individually with the director but didn’t rehearse collectively. In its thematic approach, “Chantilly Lace” bears a resemblance to John Sayles’ “Return of the Secaucus Seven” and Lawrence Kasdan’s “The Big Chill.” The narrative consists of three social gatherings of an intimate female group, all in the Utah countryside, over the course of a year.
Seven women assemble in the new Sundance house of Val (Jill Eikenberry), a symbol of the perfect wife-mother, to celebrate the 40th birthday of their friend Natalie (JoBeth Williams), a popular film critic.
The women are diverse, but they don’t represent recognizable types. They include Maggie (Talia Shire), a nun in crisis; Rheza (Lindsay Crouse), an angry divorced mother and animal breeder; Hannah (Helen Slater), an artist who recently married Williams’ ex-husband; and Elizabeth (Ally Sheedy), Eikenberry’s offbeat younger sister.
To provide some tension and also highlight the group’s cohesiveness, the writers created an outsider, Elizabeth’s friend Anne (Martha Plimpton), a maverick photojournalist who walks around with a video camera and snaps pictures.
Excepting some original jokes about sex and men’s genitals, the film doesn’t chart new territory. The women’s discourse is uncensored, but it revolves around the familiar issues of relationships, career, marriage.
If the first part is the best and most revelatory, the second is mediocre. Regrettably, the film progressively loses its freshness and eventually succumbs to sentimentality.
The most interesting aspect of this production is how it struggles, and for the most part succeeds, in avoiding the temptation and confines of the sitcom format. As co-writer and helmer, Yellen reveals a sensitive ear for women’s complexities and idiosyncracies. There are three standouts in the uniformly accomplished cast: Williams, Sheedy and Plimpton.
Technical credits are first-rate; Paul Cameron’s cinematography gives the film a visual snap and energy. Christopher Cooke’s sharp editing provides punch and seamless continuity to numerous brief scenes, shot on location in Sundance.