Under the Cherry Moon
directed by and starring Prince; Warner Bros.

“Once upon a time in France,” Under the Cherry Moon begins. Indeed: Once upon a time in France, a kid from Minnesota who’d made good came out to try to do better. Nice would be nice, he decided, with all its tacky money, and tons of terrifically incomprehensible French. The costumes? Ornate, of course, and the film-black and white like some grand pageant from the 30’s, when stars were stars. The hero? He picks and chooses: “just a gigolo.”

Prince doesn’t talk to the press much, but his piano-player, Lisa Coleman, is generally more forthcoming. The film’s plot is “kind of Pygmalion in reverse,” she told Rolling Stone. “Instead of making a high society dame out of a tramp, it’s about a man trying to loosen up a high society dame.” A tramp trying to loos en up a high-society dame, that is. As the not-yet-infatuated Mary Sharon observes at her birthday party, “It’s diamond-hunting season for Prince (as Christopher Tracy, gigolo) and band member Jerome Benton (as Christopher’s aptly named partner, Tricky) are out in full regalia. I have never seen such batted lashes, such lingering gazes, such moves, or such attire. If Prince were Princess, Ms. magazine would be bellowing-with some cause-that this was the most sexist, stereotyped film of the year. Prince has got his call girl act down pat.

I don’t know much about gigolos, but this pair seems to my untutored eye inexplicably fey; after all, though I’m sure anything goes on the Riviera, these two do seem to concentrate on women. “Am I straight or am I gay?” Prince sings in a song from a few years back; he’s got me. But never mind. This is a filmed fantasy, and the ladies flock to Christopher’s piano like bees to a honey pot.

What a waste of talent. Kristin Scott Thomas (as Mary Sharon) does a de cent job with terrible material, while Francesca Annis, who is so lovely and has such presence, and who stood out so in Dune, is absolutely squandered here. She reads her lines as if she’s embarrassed by them, and I can’t blame her. “He likes to collect things, including people,” is one of her scripted witticisms, but nothing com pares to the message on her answering machine. “You know who you’ve dialed,” it says in her best, lowest, breathiest bedroom voice, “Do you want to leave a message?” And all without a touch of irony.

I wish I could say even that it’s appallingly bad, but Under the Cherry Moon doesn’t merit a strong reaction of any kind, even negative. Prince has not accomplished as much as a lulu of a flop. There’s something to be said, after all, for making a hugely, scandalously rotten movie. But when the credits roll, and the fantasy fades, Prince goes out not with a bang, but with a whimper. Where is the master of Controversy, with his crucifix in the shower, the Christ-like pose before a lit cross in concert, his Lord’s Prayer? Surely real blasphemy must pack more of a punch; if Mr. Nelson is patterning himself after the Prince of Darkness rather than the King of Kings, he’s not doing a very credible job. Poseur, yes, and dirty-minded and blasphemous no doubt, but for all his millions, Prince is strictly a small-time operator.

For that he and only he gets the credit, or blame. Between the man and his public, or so the story goes, stands no producer, no impresario, no faceless puppeteer. Prince emerged self-created and full-grown out of Warner Brothers’ head, like Athena. He writes the songs, plays the instruments, sings lead, art directs the album covers, and produces. With Purple Rain, granted, somebody else directed. But not now. Early on, Prince himself took over, so that we know what we’re getting in Under the Cherry Moon is the pure Prince aesthetic-unfiltered, undiluted, industrial strength.

So we get a gigolo with a heart of gold, who finally falls in love and stops charging for it. We get a romantic night at the Hippodrome, a lot of in jokes, and scribbled rhymes like “Goodness will guide me when love is inside me, till then life is a parade,” and reams of witless witty conversation. “Christopher, do you love me?” Mary asks. “Define love,” is his reply. At that we in the audience groaned as one.

With a few moments of Tricky’s excepted, the comedy flops, and the tragedy’s worse. Tricky crying to God “not to take Christopher yet,” after he’s been shot, is bathos, not pathos. Prostrate, with the de rigueur trickle of blood in the corner of his mouth, Prince/Christopher manages only, “We had fun, didn’t we?”

At that, does Mary fly to her father—who ordered her lover shot-and tear his eyes out? Does she scream, hit him, or do anything a normal woman would do in the circumstances? Of course not! This high-society dame is too well-bred for anything like that. Instead, she looks Daddy in the eye—Dad who has had her under his thumb the whole movie—and says, I’m going with Christopher. Don’t try to stop me.” For one moment I thought she meant she was going to do herself in, which would have been melodramatic but at least understand able in terms of the plot; nope, she means she’s going to ride with the body to the hospital, and then one surmises to some appropriately swish funeral home. Daddy’s girl has grown up.

“With love there is no death,” Christopher scribbles somewhere. Per haps; but we can at least assume Under the Cherry Moon will find oblivion.