Bookmark and Share



Paris report by Darius KADIVAR

Darius Khondji's Cinematography Highlights Michelle Pfeiffer's Breathtaking Beauty in Stephen Frears' screen adaptation of "The Belle Époque"  French Novel: Cheri (*)


© Pathé & photocomposition © DK

"I love my past. I love my present. I'm not ashamed of what I've had, and I'm not sad because I have it no longer."

- The Last of Cheri, 1926, French novelist Colette (1873 - 1954)

"Only from the heart Can you touch the sky."

- Jalal ad-Din Rumi (Persian Poet and Mystic, 1207-1273)


Twenty Years after their collaboration on Dangerous Liaisons, British director Stephen Frears and his Hollywood égerie Michelle Pfeiffer team up once again for the screen adaptation of another classic novel in French Literature: Colette's Cheri. Aided by a pastel-tinged widescreen lensing by French Iranian cinematographer Darius Khondji and screenwriter Christopher Hampton's script (who also penned Dangerous Liaisons), Frears brings to Life a romantic drama set in 1920s Paris, where the son of a courtesan retreats into a fantasy world after being forced to end his relationship with the older woman who educated him in the ways of love. The filmmaker thanks to whom Helen Mirren won her well deserved Oscar® statuette in the 2006 for her performance in the bio epic The Queen, reiterates his taste for elegant subjects and classic settings. 


Rarely has a film recreated the Paris of the Belle Epoque with so much taste and precision. Based on the novel by Sidonie Gabrielle Colette better known by her penname Colette, the plot focus' on the love affaire between Léa de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer), a wealthy but ageing courtesan and the young "Chéri" Fred Peloux (Rupert Friend), the son of a friend of Léa. The movie offers an interesting yet cruel metaphor about love and the degree of mutual commitment between lovers  confined within the restrictions of age and social responsibility.

Combination of Talents Across the English Channel:
Stephen Frears Teams Up with Michelle Pfeiffer for a second time in 20 years after their work "Dangerous Liaisons" (1989) in a screen adaptation of a classic French novel. this time aided by  French-Iranian Cinematographer Darius Khondji's splendid photography. Frears was recently honored with the France's Top Arts Honor: "Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres" Medal  for his contribution World Arts. ©imdb & photocomposition ©DK


Never has Michelle Pfeiffer been more beautifully photographed in a role that seems fitted for her like a glove at this stage in her eclectic career. One that has spanned for barely three decades allowing her to appear as a teenage sex idol in a follow up to the musical Grease (Grease 2) to more serious roles under the direction of such greats as Brian de Palma in Scarface Opposite Al Pacino, to Martin Scorcese in Age of Innocence or Tim Burton in Batman Returns ( in the costumed role of Catwoman). Interestingly for Iranian-American movie buffs, she was also to play in an improbably B-movie Thriller by John Landis called  Into the Night opposite Jeff Goldblum about a young woman and an ordinary insomniac man caught up in a cheerfully dashing and murderous chase throughout the night in Los Angeles. Where everyone seems to want a piece of six emeralds, belonging to the Crown Jewels of the Shah of Iran (recently deposed by the Islamic Revolution) and which Diana has smuggled into the country. Although not a masterpiece, the film has become something of a cult film as one of the first onscreen appearances of the two future rising cinema stars of the 1990's: Pfeiffer and Goldblum, who at the time were mostly recognizeable for their rare tv appearances in the late 70's and early 80's.



Sidonie Gabrielle Colette known as Colette was to greatly influence women of her generation in their sexual emancipation and self acceptance. Not hesitating to even shock her generation by appearing semi nude (as in an Oriental Outfit for  Rêve D'Egypt) for Performances at the Moulin Rouge.  Apart from the privileged Qajar Aristocracy, in contrast, most Persian Women were still to await the advent of the Pahlavi Dynasty that set the course of female emancipation ( not without difficulty and sometimes forcefully) based on Western trends and values. photocomposition © DK



Stephen Frears' Chéri gives Michelle Pfeiffer the opportunity to play a role diametrically opposite to that of Madame de Tourvel  in Dangerous Liaisons by playing the seductress rather than the victim. Frears' accuracy in illustrating the ambivalent relationship of this doomed love story make it a perfect adaptation of the 120 pages long novel by Colette. 




Chéri is hardly twenty years old when he encounters the beautiful Léa de Lonval, twice his age. A Women with an insatiable appetite for men who never truly privileged love in her life. Yet for seven years she will have an intimate relation with Chéri until the day he decides to marry a young beautiful girl his age who also happens to be rich.
Yet Chéri is hardly in love with his fiancé. Léa on the other hand can no longer bare the separation and distance with her former lover. However neither wants to admit their true feelings and as a result Léa finds escape by traveling abroad. So does Chéri in desperation thinking that he has definitively lost her.  


When they meet again, Léa on one hand seems even more passionately in love than ever before while Chéri comes to  realize that he was actually more infatuated by the memory of her than the beautiful yet physically older women she has become ...


Colette's sentimental story turns out to be much more profound than what it seems to suggest initially by proving that when it comes to true Love, age does not truly matter ...



 Love At 50 ... Is it Still Possible ?

Thus is the dilemma faced by Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Cheri (Rupert Friend) her lover of have her age.   -- Darius Khondji's Photography At Its Best !  ©Pathé & imdb & photocomposition ©DK


La Belle Époque


The Belle Époque (French for "Beautiful Era") was a period in European social history that began during the late 19th century and lasted until World War I. Occurring during the time of the French Third Republic and the German Empire, the "Belle Époque" was named in retrospect, when it began to be considered a "golden age" for the upper classes, as peace prevailed among the major powers of Europe, new technologies improved lives that were unclouded by income tax, and the commercial arts adopted Renaissance and eighteenth-century styles to modern forms. In the newly rich United States, emerging from the Panic of 1873, the comparable epoch was dubbed the "Gilded (not 'Golden') Age".



CAPTION: Trailer of Stephen Frears' Cheri starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend in the title roles. Cinematography by Darius Khondji



The separation between the fortunes and daily life of "haves" and "have nots" in Western Europe and the United States increased dramatically in the last quarter of the century. Cheap coal and cheap labor contributed to the cult of the orchid and made possible the perfection of fruits grown under glass, as the apparatus of state dinners extended to the upper classes; champagne was perfected during the Belle Époque. Exotic feathers and furs were more prominently featured in fashion than ever before, as haute couture was invented in Paris, the center of the Belle Époque, where fashion began to move in a yearly cycle; in Paris restaurants such as Maxim's achieved a new splendor and cachet as places for the rich to parade, and the Opéra Garnier devoted enormous spaces to staircases as similar show places. Bohemian lifestyles gained a different glamour, pursued in the cabarets of Montmartre.

Persians of the Belle Epoque: Muzzaferedin Shah's state visit to the Paris World Exhibit of 1900, triggered a mutual fascination at the "Pavillon Persan" (aka The Persian Pavillon) between the Persians and the French that has endured to this day.
photocomposition © DK


In terms of domestic politics, there were very few regime changes in Europe, the major exception being Portugal, which experienced a republican revolution in 1910. However, tensions between working-class socialist parties, bourgeois liberal parties, and landed or aristocratic conservative parties did increase in many countries; and it has been claimed that profound political instability belied the calm surface of European politics in the era. In fact, militarism and international tensions grew considerably between 1897 and 1914, and the immediate prewar years were marked by a general armaments competition in Europe. Additionally, this era was one of massive overseas colonialism, known as the New Imperialism, or High Imperialism. The most famous portion of this imperial expansion was the Scramble for Africa.

The Belle Époque was an era of great scientific and technological advancement in Europe and the world in general. Inventions that either are associated with this era or became generally common in this era include the automobile, the aeroplane, the phonograph, the telephone, the cinématographe and the underground railway.


As for the arts underwent a radical transformation during the decades before World War I, and new artistic forms associated with cultural modernity emerged.

The arts underwent a radical transformation during the decades before World War I, and new artistic forms associated with cultural modernity emerged.


Impressionism, which had been considered the artistic avant-garde in the 1860s, gained widespread acceptance. In the early 20th century, Expressionism became the new avant-garde. The visual art style known as Art Nouveau, sometimes called "Belle Époque style".


Theatre adopted new modern methods, including Expressionism, and many playwrights wrote plays that shocked contemporary audiences either with their frank depictions of everyday life and sexuality or with unusual artistic elements. Cabaret theater also became popular. Musically, the Belle Époque was characterized by salon music. This was not considered "serious" salon music but, rather, short pieces considered accessible to a general audience. In that period, waltzes also flourished. Operettas were also at the peak of their popularity, with composers such as Johann Strauss III, Emmerich Kalman, and Franz Lehár.


CAPTION: Top : Muzzaferedin Shah Qajar and the Emergence of Film Industry in Persia/Iran (circa 1900) Bottom: Ahmad Shah Qajar's European Tour (1920's)




It was also during this era that the motion pictures were developed thanks to the competing talents of France's Lumiere Brothers and America's Edison each claiming in their own right the invention of the "Cinématographe" or "Moving Pictures" though these did not become common until after World War I.

European literature underwent a major transformation during the Belle Époque. Literary realism and naturalism achieved new heights. Among the most famous realist or naturalist authors are Benito Pérez Galdós, Theodor Fontane, Guy de Maupassant and Émile Zola. Realism gradually developed into modernism, which emerged in the 1890s and came to dominate European literature during the Belle Époque's final years and throughout the interwar years. Among the most prominent European modernist authors are Andrei Bely, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, Marcel Proust, Arthur Schnitzler, Robert Walser and William Butler Yeats.


Muzzaferedin Shah escapes assassination attempt by French anarchist "Salson" during his state visit to Paris. No injury for the Shah of Persia or his entourage. (circa 1900)


It can be said that George Sand and Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette ( better known by her Pen name "Colette") although a generation apart can be considered each in their own right as prominent female authors of this era who influenced the feminist literature and recognition of women's struggle for equal rights and recognition in a largely male dominated society before the advent of WWI.


Audio Voice of Muzzaferedin Shah and his ministers

recorded by French Audio Recoding Device (circa 1900's) Listen Here

Photocomposition ©DK


Colette On Screen ( **/):


Stephen Frears's "Chéri," which opened in France and Belgium on April 8, is the first major film adaptation of a Colette novel since Vincente Minnelli's "Gigi"(1958). That classic musical about a young lady being preened for a life as a courtesan swept the 1958 Oscars with nine wins, including one for the musical team of Lerner and Loewe.


Born Sidonie-Gabriele Colette in 1873, Colette was hailed in her day as France's greatest female writer. She was known equally for her writings -- among them the novels in the Claudine series, "The Pure and the Impure" and the libretto to Ravel's opera "L'Enfant et les Sortileges" -- and for her scandalous love life. She didn't do much to conceal the latter, which in the course of three marriages included countless affairs with men and women, even one with her stepson.


The slender, semi autobiographical volume "Chéri," which tells of an aging courtesan's love affair with a 19-year-old boy, is Colette's best-known novel. It is the prime example of Colette's prose style, which has been described as impressionistic in reference to its precise, sensual style whose economy also strikes the reader as elliptical.


In the moralistic atmosphere of 1950s Hollywood, it was tricky to present Colette's account of the risqué demimondaine, and its glorification of the courtesans who relied on wealthy playboys and aristocrats to live in a state of opulence. Minnelli's solution was to mask the morally problematic content with a color-drenched tribute to fin de siecle Paris re-created with the help of costumer and production designer Cecil Beaton.


The candy-colored Paris of "Gigi" is the world of Renoir, Seurat, Boudin and Toulouse-Lautrec. Minnelli takes much pleasure in conjuring up impressionistic and art nouveau tableaus. These distract us from the parallels between the role of the courtesan and prostitution, creating an imaginary aura of innocence.

Colette has often been adapted to screen with great success. The most notable being the Musical comedy Gigi (1958) (starring Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier and Louis Jourdan) which won 9 Oscars. Stephen Frears' Chéri is the second adaptation of Colette's bestseller after Pierre Billon's 1950's version with Jean Dessailly and Marcelle Chantal in the title roles. While Colette's own personal life has inspired several bio epics as Colette, une femme libre with the late Marie Trintignant (2004) in the title role.  ©imdb& photocomposition ©DK


Frears aided by Darius Khondji 's cinematography certainly relishes in re-creating this fascinating world, and the several filming locations for "Chéri" include a villa designed and owned by Hector Guimard, who designed the entrances for the Paris Metro, and the legendary Maxim's restaurant, which was also featured prominently in "Gigi". But behind the elaborate coiffures, hats and overstuffed sitting rooms,  Frears engages more faithfully with his source material than Minnelli could a half-century ago.

Indeed, the task of producing a watchable adaptation of "Chéri" was too tall for Colette herself. "Adapting something like 'Chéri' even defeated her,"  according to an interview given to the Wall Street Journal, screenwriter Christopher Hampton, in reference to a French version of "Chéri" (starring Marcelle Chantal and Jean Dessailly in the title roles) from the 1950s whose screenplay Colette wrote. He adds that Colette's screenplay "doesn't look to have caught whatever the quality of the novel is."

One challenge lay in finding a way to capture the ambiance of the novel. "It is tone and atmosphere as opposed to plot and narration, which is easier," Mr. Hamilton says. Another was researching to capture a historical milieu, which Colette often assumes that the reader is familiar with.

Actress Michelle Pfeiffer says she delved into Colette's life to prepare for her role as the aging courtesan Léa. And while she created Léa in her own image, Colette always hovered close by. "I focused a lot on Colette and who she was," Ms. Pfeiffer explained in an interview in Berlin. "She was definitely a woman who was considered scandalous. She was ahead of her time."


Pfeiffer feels that Christopher Hampton's dialogue has nailed the novel square on the head. "It's so well matched with Colette. So it's almost hard to separate her voice from his voice," she explains. One strategy that Messrs. Hampton and Frears hit upon was to include a narrated prologue that quickly sketches the world of the courtesan. Mr. Frears himself provides the narration. "Actually it's exactly what they did in 'Gigi.' That was what Maurice Chevalier does," says Mr. Frears, referring to the dandyish Honoré Lachaille, played by Chevalier, who periodically steps out of the film to address the audience in "Gigi."


The Shah of Persia Muzzaferedin Shah's fascination with the West and its technological advances, resulted in importing Cinema (known as Le Cinematographe at the time) to Persia/Iran shortly after his visit to France during  La Belle Epoque era that corresponded to Colette's youth and so much inspired her novels.
photocomposition © DK


"He says 'this is this person,' 'that is that person' and 'thank heaven for little girls.' It's such a bizarre world. You have to explain it."

Mr. Frears came to the project having read only the script. While making a period picture always presents its unique challenges, Mr. Frears says that what was most difficult was striking the right tone. "It was getting the right pitch. It's a tragic story about frivolous people," he says.

While the world of "Chéri" is so utterly different from our own, neither Mr. Frears nor Mr. Hampton felt the need to modernize. "She's just a remarkable writer and very mature and has an enormous amount of insight into the human heart," says Mr. Hampton, adding that these are qualities that make Colette vital and relevant today. "All great writers are modern. Sophocles is modern. Otherwise they're no good. You don't want to read them anymore." (/ **)


Cinematographer Darius Khondji is without exaggeration considered today as one of the most creative professionals in his field. Not surprising therefore that British director Stephen Frears chose him to work on Chéri. Khondji has been at the forefront of Cinematography thanks to his innovative lighting and filming in such films like Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Delicatessen (1991)and City of Lost Children (1995) or David Fincher's Se7en that opened the doors to other Hollywood productions ranging from Alan Parker's Evita (for which he was nominated for an Oscar® for the Best Cinematography in 1997) to Sidney Pollack's last feature film: The Interpreter (2005).


Born in Iran ( formerly Persia), to an Iranian Father and French mother, Darius Khondji grew up in Tehran before leaving with his family for France where he attended school and further education. He became interested in film early on and made Super-8 films in his teens. Later in life, he moved to the United States to study at UCLA and then majored in film from New York University and the International Center for Photography. During this period two teachers influenced his decision to become a cinematographer: Jonas Mekas and Haig Manoogian (Martin Scorsese's film teacher).  Khondji cites Gregg Toland ( Citizen Kane) as his favorite cinematographer and also admires  John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath, and James Wong Howe's work, in particular Hud. Khondji has said that his dream project would be a 16mm black and white film of On the Road. His upcoming work will be on Chinese director Kar Wai Wong's remake of an Orson Welles film entitled The Lady From Shanghai also a period piece set in the 1930's, in which a mysterious woman who claims that she came from Shanghai has a dangerous affair with a spy. It is the second collaboration between Khondji and Kar Wai Wong after their work on My Blueberry Nights.


In the meantime the son of a Cinema Theater manager from Tehran, Iran, has come a long way into becoming one of the most respected and demanded cinematographers in the world and whose talented eye remains focused on beauty ...





Authors Notes:

(*) Colette's Novel Cheri :available in English on & French on

(**) courtesy by A.J. Goldmann of the Wall Street Journal

"OUF, PLUS DE PEUR QUE DE MAL !!" Translates "Good Lord: More Fear than Real Damage"

Official UK Website of Cheri: 

Official French Website of Cheri:

Recommended Readings:

In The Shadows of Cinematography with Darius Khondji by Darius KADIVAR
Persian Golden Boys in Hollywood by Darius KADIVAR


La Princesse Noor D'Iran: Un Cœur A Prendre! by Darius KADIVAR
Monaco's Persian Heartthrob by Darius KADIVAR
CHAMPAGNE SAFARI: Rita Hayworth and the Persian Prince by Darius KADIVAR
Stardust Memories...: Princess Soraya's Hollywood Temptations by Darius KADIVAR
Seducer or Seduced? Yasmina Reza's Authorized Portrait of French President Sarkozy by Darius KADIVAR
Le Charme Persan by Darius KADIVAR
A PERSIAN ROSE BLOOMS: An Interview with actress Shiva Rose McDermott by Darius KADIVAR
Sultan of my Heart : Monika Jalili and Noorsaaz's Remembrance of Things Past by Darius KADIVAR
An Axis Of Joy: Monika Jalili & Noorsaaz Band Triumph in Paris by Darius KADIVAR
MOON RIVER: Breakfast Talk with British-Iranian Model Sophia (Sepideh) Nooshin By Darius KADIVAR
Rainbow High: Farah Pahlavi at Paris Dior 60th Anniversary Gala by Darius KADIVAR

On French-Iranians in Cinema:

Iranian Pioneers in French New Wave Cinema by Darius KADIVAR
A Class Apart:Fereydoun Hoveyda (1924-2006) by Darius KADIVAR
Enduring FriendShip: Alain Delon and Farah Pahlavi by Darius KADIVAR
The Persian Girl Of Saint-Germain by Darius KADIVAR
Legendary Film Critic Jean-Claude Carriere and Wife Nahal Tajadod Chants Djalal-e-Din Mohammad Molavi Rumi by Darius KADIVAR
Carriere's Master Class In Tehran by Darius KADIVAR
Philippe Khorsand: A Discreet Iranian Sidekick by Darius KADIVAR
Tickets to Master Class: Co-Direction of Styles with KIAROSTAMI, LOACH, OLMI by Darius KADIVAR
Being Princess Shams: Mathilda May portrays Late Shah's Sister by Darius KADIVAR
Satrapi's Persepolis wins "Prix du Jury" at Cannes by Darius KADIVAR
MAGIC IN THE MAKING: Satrapi's Cinephilic Choice for Persepolis Cast by Darius KADIVAR
Anicée (ALVINA) Shahmanesh: France's Sex Icon of the 1970's by Darius KADIVAR
Kiarostami Reveals Name of Film With Juliette Binoche by Darius KADIVAR
Observing the Maestro: Binoche paints Kiarostami for Les Cahiers by Darius KADIVAR
BREAKING THE WAVES: Iranian Women of the Diaspora Seduce French Media by Darius KADIVAR
Enduring Friendship: Alain Delon and Shahbanou Farah by Darius KADIVAR
An Independent Eye: Producer/Distributor Hengameh Panahi by Darius KADIVAR
Youssef Ishaghpour's Rosebud by Darius KADIVAR
Kiarostami Reveals Name of Film With Juliette Binoche by Darius KADIVAR
Observing the Maestro: Binoche paints Kiarostami for Les Cahiers by Darius KADIVAR
Centre Pompidou Hosts Kiarostami-Eric Exhibition by Darius KADIVAR
Winds of War:French-Soviet Production Teheran'43 by Darius KADIVAR
Teheran Mon Amour: Music Score of Motion Picture Teheran'43
by Darius KADIVAR
French-Iranian director Robert Hossein to revive Epic Tale of Ben Hur in 2006 by Darius KADIVAR 


About the Author:
Darius KADIVAR is a Freelance Journalist, Film Historian, and Media Consultant. He is also contributes to
OCPC Magazine in LA/US and to the London Based IC Publications The Middle East Magazine and Persian Heritage Magazine.

© Copyright 2009 (All Rights Reserved)