Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Cherchez le jeune homme

Here comes yet another OWYM film – Chéri is set to hit U.S. theaters at the end of June.

Set in turn-of-the century France, the film follows the affair of retired courtesan Lea (Michelle Pfeiffer), and her 19-year-old lover (Rupert Friend). Adding to the drama: The young man, the Chéri of the film’s title, is the son of a fellow courtesan.

The affair lasts six years. Complications arise when the young man’s mother arranges a marriage for him with a woman closer to his own age. I don’t know how the movie ends (although I can guess), so I can’t be a spoiler.

 But I can reveal the true story on which the movie is loosely based.

The movie is based on the 1920 book “Chéri” by the French writer Colette, whose life seems far more interesting than that of her fictional heroine. (For more on Colette, see this New York Times review of a 1999 biography).

At age 46, Colette began an affair with her 16-year-old stepson.

Uncommon love was a common theme in Colette’s work and life. She had already had affairs with women, bared her breasts in Paris music halls and divorced her first husband. The stepson affair would last five years and end her second marriage, to her lover’s father. Her third husband was 16 years younger than she.

All of which is to say that the recent excitement over younger men with older women is nothing new. It’s been frothed up by all things Demi and Ashton and by TV shows like The Cougar. But it predates all of that. It predates Colette, too.

 Still, there’s something about older women and younger men at the current intersection of media and culture that gets people excited. The recent movies and TV shows (The Reader, Cheri, Desperate Housewives, The Cougar),  the popularity of Demi and Ashton as supermarket tabloid fodder, and the revelation by AARP that three out of 10 single women between 40 and 69 are dating younger men — all of that bespeaks a fascination with this kind of uncommon love. And it says, too, that it’s not so uncommon after all.

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