On the Riviera—that’s in France, on the south side, in case you cared—a pompadour’ed gigolo in high-heeled boots charms the ladies by running his playful little fingers up and down the piano, composing light verse, and generally exulting in his own prettiness. Under the Cherry Moon, “A Film by Prince,” as the climactic opening title card proclaims, is playing (in 35mm) at IFC Center on May 6 and 7. The film was much-maligned upon its release, and after, for its obvious self-indulgence—the Razzies, from the outset a pile-on of aspirationally savvy conventional wisdom, showered it with awards—but we, with the benefit of hindsight and grief, can appropriately treasure its majestic purply affection. But more than that, Under the Cherry Moon is an inspired, delightful piece of cinema—pure cloudcuckooland escapism, a luxuriant, swishy appropriation of Golden Age dreaminess with a dollop of wide-eyed 80s consumerist wonderment and mystical messianic streak, and very much of a piece with Prince’s genius.
After the success of Purple Rain, Warner Brothers must have been disinclined to question His Royal Badness. Under the Cherry Moon’s soundtrack album, Parade, rewarded their faith by selling four million copies; the movie itself bombed. A neo-screwball comedy filtered through the pan-ethnic magazine-spread high-fashion gloss of the 80s music video, Under the Cherry Moon was disliked, in part, for not featuring much in the way of full performances. Though it’s hard to complain when the intro of “Kiss” snaps into place as a giddily on-point music cue. And anyway, the whole thing is a performance.
Prince, wearing many of his own outfits from the era (this midriff-baring button-up top, also seen in the “Kiss” video and single, and this suit, both make appearances), plays Christopher Tracy, a hustler in Nice. (The film was shot on location.) Under the Cherry Moon was shot by Fassbinder and Scorsese collaborator Michael Ballhaus, and production-designed by Richard Sylbert (Chinatown, The Cotton Club, et cetera); its sparkling black-and-white photography, fancy-dress extras in Art Deco headdresses and gowns, and bantering, class-conscious love story all recall the decade of My Man Godfrey, even as Prince drives around in sports cars, and brings a ghettoblaster into a fancy restaurant to lead the whole crowd in an impromptu dance party. The silvery ahistorical pop vibe actually quite rhymes with the colonial scenes in Miguel Gomes’s Tabu.
Christopher Tracy lives in a hotel room (with free-standing bathtub) with his sidekick, The Time’s Jerome Benton. In between making goofy double-act banter, the two set their sites on a rich heiress, and Prince slips into a mode of seduction similar to Purple Rain, as an insolent romantic. Batting his eyelashes, pouting, prancing, he’s like a kid who wants the babysitter to guess his secret, and zips his lips petulantly when she won’t play along—except the secret is that he’s just scattered rose petals all over his bedroom and lit like a hundred candles.
The exasperated love interest, who first bristles at Prince’s accusations of frigidity, then warms to him, then questions the depth of his love, then is willing to give all for him, all in the classic romantic-comedy fashion, is Kristin Scott Thomas, in her fist film role, doing her best Kate Hepburn with blowdried bangs. As Mary Sharon, with a $50 million trust fund and a boring fiancé in New York, she flashes the staid crowd at her 21st birthday party, then plays a funky beat on the drums, but also showcases a rare patrician hauteur in her dealings with “peasant” Christopher. (At their first meeting, when she has him thrown out, he practically shrieks at her to loosen her chastity belt; later, as she begins to explore the seedy underbelly of life, he and Jerome humiliate her by making her repeat the words “Wrecka Stow,” over and over, very loudly.) Thomas apparently dislikes the film—maybe she couldn’t ride with Prince’s particular style of stage kissing, which tends towards the face-mashing. Terence Stamp was originally cast as her disapproving daddy; he left after a few days of shooting, citing “scheduling conflicts.”
Nor was he the only one to abandon ship. Under the Cherry Moon was originally to be directed by Mary Lambert, of Pet Sematary and videos for Madonna and Sheila E.; she dropped out, releasing a statement that read: “I’m leaving under totally amicable circumstances. It’s just become quite apparent that Prince has such a strong vision of what this movie should be, a vision that extends to so many areas of the film, that it makes no sense for me to stand between him and the film anymore. So I’m going off to work on my own feature and letting him finish his.” Prince, ever the control freak, must have been tweaking the script and and production design to suit his vision; although imdb quite matter-of-factly lists Ballhaus as codirector, the film is unmistakably “by Prince,” the way it mines eras for their pockets of ecstasy, and celebrates a man demanding erotic love entirely upon his own transcendent terms.