SWOON. The artist formerly known as Prince dedicates his life to the pursuit of Beauty. What could be more extravagant, or more ridiculous? It isn't easy to pay court to Beauty. You must be prodigal of time, energy, and money. You must be indifferent to embarrassment. You must be ready to try anything. You must go to the most absurd lengths to prove your desire. Prince's music is promiscuous beyond measure. It occupies every possible sexual position. It swallows up just about every style of music, black or white. It moves with ease between gospel choruses and arena rock guitars, between heavy funk riffs and lightweight pop ballads, between melodic falsetto crooning and psychedelic distortion. Nowhere is Prince's quest for Beauty more delirious than in his 1986 movie, Under the Cherry Moon. Prince plays Christopher Tracy, a gigolo who "lived for all women, but died for one." The film combines elements of slapstick, musical, screwball comedy, and melodrama. It's set in a fantasy version of the French Riviera: a place where rose petals flutter through the air, and where men and women alike wear the most elegant costumes. The design fuses elements of style from every decade since the Twenties. It's a high-society world, and it is lily-white. The "butterscotch" Christopher and his "chocolate" sidekick Tricky (Jerome Benton) are almost the only people of color around. As if to underscore this, the film is shot in sumptuous black and white. The screen is suffused with light, which vanquishes all shadows. Sometimes this light is dazzling, at other times muted and low-key. But even the night is luminous. Everything is posed for maximum visibility. Everything glows, from the white bedding and white dresses that the women favor, to the black sheen of Prince's conked, pomaded hair. In this chichi setting, Christopher woos the virgin heiress Mary (Kristin Scott Thomas). She scorns him at first, but soon falls for his charms. The obstacle is Mary's father Isaac (Steven Berkoff). He wants her to marry someone as white and rich as herself. When he can't break them up, he has Christopher killed. Mary is left to mourn. The movie ends with a pan up to the sky. Prince and his band appear in the clouds to perform one last song. What can we do but worship? Prince the director discloses Beauty in the person of Prince the actor. The style is what counts. Christopher Tracy cultivates the art of being on display. He fashions himself into an exotic Other. His body, clothed in glamour, becomes the focus of all glances. We see him in bed, in the bathtub, at the piano, on the dance floor, and driving a car. Everywhere he manifests the same delicious languor. He moves with a slow, stylized grace. It's as if he were waiting to be ravished. He disdains work, he tells us, and lives only for "fun." The camera moves caressingly up the length of his body. It dwells longingly on the ample folds of his ass. His feet are sheathed in high-heeled shoes. His pants are flared at the legs, but nicely tight around the buttocks. His jackets and shirts feature rows of big buttons, and leave his chest or midriff bare. A single lock of hair curls daintily over his forehead. Sometimes his eyes are hidden behind sunglasses. Other times, he bats his eyes coyly, or opens them wide in mock horror. Prince composes his look anew at every instant. He knows that Beauty is never the same, and that it never lasts. That's why each of the film's privileged moments is interrupted by something farcical, crass, or corny. Even the lovers' climactic kiss is intercut with a dumb reaction shot of two applauding clochards. Such contrasts recur throughout. You can hear the changes in Christopher's voice, as his diction shifts from upper-class propriety to boys in the 'hood and back again. He softens his speech and straightens his hair in order to pass in polite white society. But he also seduces Mary, getting her to leave that world and enter his own. Prince is always crossing boundaries: between male and female, straight and gay, black and white. We never quite know which side of the line he's on. We can't tell if he's crossed over or sold out. Under the Cherry Moon is about the allure of privilege, wealth, and light skin. But it's also about how Prince confounds all these distinctions. For Beauty is too fragile and fleeting to bear their weight. If you live for Beauty, you must also be ready to die for it. Christopher is killed by a single bullet. He drops to the ground ever so gracefully. You'd think he had merely fallen into an affected swoon. His limbs are carefully arrayed upon the ground. Mary cradles his head in her arms. Christopher's beauty has finally been realized in death. Prince's song "Sometimes It Snows In April" comes up on the soundtrack. It reminds us that "love isn't love until it's past."
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