The music swells, the screen goes black, and a title card appears: “a Stephen Frears Film.” For another director, it would be a formality, but in the case of Frears it is a necessary reminder. Frears—whose films range to include everything from Dangerous Liaisons to High Fidelity, from My Beautiful Laundrette to The Queen—is a director who prefers to remain safely anonymous. He churns out smart movies while straining not to leave fingerprints. As Frears told me recently, summoning all his British reserve, “I vigorously protest any auteurial claims.”
“It’s all to do with her eyes,” Frears says of filming Pfeiffer. “You have to get it absolutely on the money. … Couple of inches off, it all goes.”
Since The Queen, the movie that sent a 1,000-watt surge of humanity through the British royals, anonymity has been rather difficult to maintain. And yet here comes a new film, Chéri, which is unlike anything Frears has done before. It has similarities to Dangerous Liaisons: It’s a French period piece starring Michelle Pfeiffer. But where the former was a sprawling melodrama, Chéri is a smallish character study. In Liaisons, Pfeiffer played a woman of virtue, pursued by the circling vulture Vicomte de Valmont. Here, Frears has stripped Pfeiffer of virtue and made her a prostitute.
Frears, who is 68, was in New York the other day attempting to undermine a writer who was celebrating his directorial genius, who sought Scorsese- and Tarantino-like passions within his movies. Did he have a fondness for Colette, author of the novel Chéri? “Not a flicker,” he said. This is typical Frears—he does not do “personal” films. “Other people's ideas are better than mine,” he added. Frears was unshaven and wearing baggy pants, a look Glenn Close once memorably dubbed “like the stadium after the game.” “He’s got his vanity like we all have, but he wears his success and his intellect very lightly,” said Giles Foster, a British director who has worked with Frears at the BBC. “There’s an English reticence to nail your name to the thing.”
So what does a Frears movie entail? Well, for starters, he is a writer’s director. “He insists that the writer is there at all times right through the shooting and the editing,” said Christopher Hampton, who wrote the screenplays for Chéri and Dangerous Liaisons. The writer is Frears’ guide to the cinematic world he has set out to create. In the case of Chéri, it took Frears and Hampton 21 script revisions to flesh out an alien, Belle Époque universe in which a few French courtesans became, for a glorious moment, “the most powerful women in the history of prostitution.”
Chéri’s heroine, Léa de Lonville (Pfeiffer), has made piles of money—just ask her footman. But the movie finds her at an age when her prospects are depreciating faster than an aging center fielder’s. Who’s left to ravish? She selects as her target Chéri (Rupert Friend), the 19-year-old son of another prostitute. Chéri’s quality time with prostitutes is not limited to his mother.
Photographing Pfeiffer, who is 51 and whose face still looks like marble, was a particular challenge. “What you're shooting is lifeless, then you put [the camera] in the right place and it comes together,” Frears said. “Because it's all to do with her eyes. You have to get it absolutely on the money.… Couple of inches off, it all goes.” As the shooting progressed, Hampton devised a scene in which Pfeiffer stares into the mirror. Those blue eyes look at her aged reflection in horror. You’re tempted to recall the final shot of Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons, in which Glenn Close gazed at her reflection and searched madly for a soul—but then that would be an auteurial claim.
A second plank of the Frears method: Make sure the actors have enough confidence to behave ridiculously. Rupert Friend plays Chéri like the walking hangover of a spoiled childhood. In another movie, his petulant demands (“Kiss me!”) and touching innocence—he lays his head on Léa’s lap like her child—would be met with guffaws. “They're making fools of themselves, aren't they?” Frears says of his actors. “They're saying, ‘I'll be in love with you,’ or ‘I'll suffer.’ So you try and make a space where they feel they can do that.”
There are other Frears signatures. There is a journey into an unknown realm: the subterranean London of Dirty Pretty Things or, here, the French prostitute conclaves, with each lady examining the other for wrinkles. There are snatches of screamingly indiscreet dialogue. “Don’t you find, now that the skin’s a little less firm, it holds perfume so much better?” asks Kathy Bates’ Madame Peloux.
But the true mark of a Frears film—what even reticence doesn’t prevent him from describing—is his delight in adding layers of complication. Frears allows that he is interested in “sexual complexity.” What he means is he creates an outrageous situation—a French courtesan and her kept man—and then uses that as cover to sneak in real, human emotion. Though Chéri may not be in a league with The Queen, it has moments that lodge in memory: Léa’s knowing, maternal gaze, indulgent even when Chéri tries on her pearls; Chéri’s strategic use of silence to force his loved ones to fill in the blanks.
About that Frears modesty: It reminds us that 21st-century moviemaking—never mind the ads touting “the third film from Judd Apatow”—is a series of treacherous compromises, creative and otherwise. If anything resembling a “Stephen Frears Film” seeps out, then, well, it’s a small miracle. “The days of jodhpur-wearing are over,” Frears said. “The whip years are finished.” Even so, if you keep your head down you can create a c.v. as rich and varied as a studio director from the 1940s: a royal-court picture, a slacker rock movie, maybe even a few French period pieces. And when a reporter inquires about what your next movie will be, you can look at them like Stephen Frears does and say without any false modesty, “I haven’t a clue.”
Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast.