Directed by Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen) and based on the novels of Colette, Chéri tells the story of an aging courtesan (Michelle Pfeiffer) who falls for the playboy son (Rupert Friend) of a rival courtesan (Kathy Bates). It’s a boudoir dramedy set mainly in Paris, and it goes without saying that the Belle Epoque interiors speak volumes. I talked to the film’s set decorator, Véronique Melery, for a translation.
Tell us a little about the period Chéri is set in.
It is set between 1906 and the months just before the First World War in France. Stylistically there were two main streams of influence: Napoleon III, which was the fashion just before this period, and art nouveau.
Quite a sharp contrast in styles, no?
They are radically different. Art nouveau design has a purity of line that was inspired by Japan and Orientalism that was a break from the historicism prevalent in the 19th century. Previously in France, interiors were furnished in a way that copied Louis XV and Louis XVI styles, and transforming them into something much heavier.
And Lea de Lonval (Pfeiffer) and Mme. Peloux (Kathy Bates) each embody one of the two styles.
Definitely. Mme. Peloux is a Victorian—just buying things for the sake of buying, and putting things together from various periods and styles that don’t necessarily match. And Lea is surrounded by objects that are in accordance with the art nouveau style.
They’re both courtesans. How did that affect the way you decorated?
Madame Peloux has a flamboyant style—designed to show how much she can buy. But Lea, even though she’s a courtesan, has become more refined.
Mme. Peloux’s flamboyance is most evident on her veranda, and in her garden, is it not?
The furs mixed with the crystal—on a veranda! And it’s not seen in the film, but we had huge mirrors there, too. The garden definitely was more restrained. Even if you put too many flowers in the rose garden, there’s still something really fresh and charming about it.
Symbolically speaking, the key furnishing in the film is Lea’s bed.
It was quite difficult—at the same time showing its importance but also making it delicate. We worked a lot on the texture and color because we didn’t want to see this elegant lady in something that could dominate her. She was the dominating person in the bed! We made the bedspreads with old lace.
Where did you get the lace?
Most of it came from one of the top flea markets in Paris. But I found a stock of delicate 19th-century lace from Brussels and Bruges on eBay. And we met someone who was collecting Japanese embroidered silk.
Where did you do most of your sourcing?
Everywhere, really. We shot in Cologne, but because there’s nothing there we had to go to Vienna to find things. But my main source was Stain-Ouen, the flea market north of Paris. And of course I went to some really marvelous antique shops in France. Sometimes people don’t like to rent you things, but the names Stephen Frears and Michelle Pfeiffer open doors.
Tell me about the extraordinary colors in Lea’s house.
The palette was lilac, pale grey, and light blue. We were trying to find a mix of colors that hadn’t been seen before. We worked from painters like Sargent and we found patterns and old books of wallpapers and fabrics.
What hotel did you use for Lea’s trip to Biarritz?
It’s the Palais de l’Imperatrice. We kept the exterior almost as it was. And inside, to keep the palette, we covered the seats with special blue velvet. We also added some furniture that was not so heavy.
I love the opium den.
It was difficult for the scouts to find a good location for that. In the end, we found a building that had been decorated with Chinese interiors. We put in really rich fabrics and objects that were just a bit derelict—the shabby-chic of the time. It was an enormous pleasure to do that set, and to imagine what [the proprietor] might have picked up from here and there—a little bit Turkish, a little bit Indian.
If you could own one piece from the film, what would it be?
A piece of embroidered silk dating from the 19th century. The pattern was so charming, and it was so delicately made. It was a sort silvery gray and every detail was in pale silver, pale pink, and pale blue. The way the colors changed in the light, it was almost like watching the sea moving.
Photos: Bruno Calvo/Courtesy of Miramax Films.