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Chantilly Lace

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Featuring the seduction of a pizza delivery man, a nun in search of a tampon, and dialogue like, ”Take that incredible anger and learn how to use it,” chantilly lace (Showtime, July 18, 8-10 p.m.) is a ’90s women’s movie that might as well hold up a sign: ”No Boyz Allowed.” Instead, it’s billed as ”an original improvised dramatic film,” and the improvisers in this made-for-TV effort comprise an all-semi-star female cast (excluding the anon- ymous pizza man): Jill Eikenberry, JoBeth Williams, Ally Sheedy, Talia Shire, Lindsay Crouse, Helen Slater, and Martha Plimpton. They play friends who gather at the vacation home of Eikenberry’s Val, to reminisce, to gossip, to hug and empathize, to guzzle mimosas and sing a woozy, all-too-enthusiastic version of ”Delta Dawn.” Chantilly Lace, directed by Linda Yellen, is a sort of Big Chilled Wine, with the only kind of feminist slant that gets much exposure on television: well-to-do white women grousing about horrible men and about their mostly unfulfilled needs to be creative. Even so, dramatizing these oppressions-which are certainly real, if overdone in pop culture and trivial in the context of much worse problems other women face daily-might have been interesting, especially on a cable channel like Showtime where there is more freedom (from commercials, from language restrictions) to grapple with them frankly. The problem is that Yellen, who has also worked as a producer on such TV-movie fare as The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana and Liberace: Behind the Music, is no foe of sappy pap, and she has encouraged her cast to improvise in the languages of psychobabble and the romance novel. Thus, one prime bit of soap-operatic conflict here is that Slater’s Hannah has recently married the ex-husband of JoBeth Williams’ Natalie. Natalie is feeling some hostility about this. But then Hannah blubbers, ”I want our friend-ship back!” and the two compare notes on this dude and find themselves in remarkable agreement (”He’s a monster!”). Soon they’re buddies again, and Natalie gives Hannah the sort of advice that pops up all over Chantilly:”If you can love him, love him-but don’t lose you.” In Chantilly, everyone has a slippery grasp on her identity. Sheedy’s Elizabeth wants to come out to her friends as a lesbian in love with Plimpton’s Anne but fears the disapproval of her older sister, the prim Val. Shire plays a nun questioning her faith after having counseled a girl to use birth control. (Shire’s scene in which she asks all her chums for a spare tampon is supposed to humanize her, but Shire plays it with a robotic moroseness.) Natalie is feeling bummed because she is turning 40, so to perk up her self-esteem she seduces that pizza guy, a faceless lug with smooth muscles, who flops into her bed without hesitation. The scene is ludicrous, and one presumes Yellen intends it as a parody of all the male-dominated movies that reduce women to pretty, mindless bods. But in Chantilly, sex can never be devil-may-care fun: While Natalie and Mr. Hold-the-Sausage grunt and groan, the rest of the gals are just below her window, chilling in a hot tub, debating whether or not Natalie is debasing herself. One of the goals of improvisational filmmaking is to convey an authenticity that a polished script frequently precludes. (Think of such cinema-verite touchstones as Robert Frank’s 1959 Pull My Daisy or the early directorial efforts of John Cassavetes, like Shadows and Faces.) There’s little that seems spontaneous or original in Chantilly, however, because it’s a nonstop encounter session. Williams gives the best, most varied performance, but the primary way the film confirms that much of its dialogue was made up on the spot is that its talk seems so banal and aimless. Curiously, the Big Bopper’s genially salacious oldie ”Chantilly Lace” is nowhere to be heard on the soundtrack. But then, none of the women in this movie are permitted to have a ”wiggle in her walk” or ”a giggle in her talk”- one gets the feeling this would have been considered politically incorrect. Instead, the movie builds to a final scene that finds nearly every character bursting into racked sobs. Given a wealth of acting talent and the freedom to improvise its way past the cliches that hobble so many films by and about women, Chantilly Lace ends up a cliche anyway: a manipulative tearjerker. C+