Frears brings ‘Cheri’ to France

Once again, director fights for Gallic shoot

Different film, same battle.

Twenty years after persuading the producers of “Dangerous Liaisons” that Hungary was not an adequate stand-in for 18th-century France, Stephen Frears again found himself having to fight in Gaul’s corner for his adaptation of Colette’s 1920s-set novel “Cheri.”

“For me there was no alternative but to make ‘Cheri’ in France,” says the British director. “There’s not much left of La Belle Epoque, and what there is can only be found in France. Eastern Europe was mentioned, and it would have been a cheaper alternative, but really you can’t fake this kind of thing.”

On “Cheri,” Frears worked closely with the Ile de France Film Commission, whose Fond de Soutien (support fund) contributed $250,000 toward the pic’s $23 million budget.

His insistence on authenticity proved valuable to the film’s look and feel. “Once I started to learn about (the period), I understood that you couldn’t reproduce a building like the Hotel du Palais in Biarritz because there’s nothing comparable anywhere else.”

Frears felt the same way about the famous Parisian restaurant Maxim’s, where the character of Cheri (Rupert Friend), the dissolute son of a retired courtesan, goes to drown his sorrows. “I seem to have spent my life watching films where Maurice Chevalier said, ‘To Maxim’s,’ so it was like going home really,” Frears says.

“About halfway through filming I looked at ‘Gigi’ (Vincente Minnelli’s film adaptation of another Colette novel) and realized that you can’t reproduce that look of Maxim’s, you have to go there.”

The only real problem Frears encountered shooting on location was the result of French bureaucracy. After several days scouting, the director stumbled upon a run-down hostel that looked exactly like the sort of Belle Epoque house the character of Lea, the aging courtesan played by Michelle Pfeiffer, might have lived in.

“We spent weeks doing it up and shot there for a week,” says the director. “It was in a terrible state and we made it look beautiful. When we finished shooting we were told to put it back in the condition in which we’d found it. So we did. It was crazy, but that’s French red tape for you.”

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