France, the beginning of 20th century, just before the WWI. Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a beautiful but ageing Parisian courtesan, currently without court. She doesn’t complain. As she’s been very successful and quite business-savvy, she managed to put a lot of money aside. Now she is financially independent, able to live like an aristocrat; still she is almost completely friendless. Small wonder, a prostitute, rich or poor, doesn’t really belong anywhere. Lea feels she is condemned to a company of her colleagues and former colleagues – not exactly friends, rather uneasy allies, like inmates. One of them, Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates) a one-time competitor and shameful gossip, has a young son, Fred nicknamed Chéri (“darling” in French). Charlotte and Lea have known each other for years as their careers have been very similar; that’s why Lea was constantly in the life of Chéri, being even his godmother. One day, Madame Peloux comes to her and asks her to take in the boy as a lover and teach him about life.
Chéri is far from being a virgin, but it is obvious he needs some reining in or he’ll turn into a blasé addict or worse. He also has to know how to treat a woman. Lea agrees to be his tutor without much reluctance – the boy is handsome enough to tempt even a courtesan. Despite the age disparity Cheri accepts Lea’s saddle quite willingly. What begins as simple lovemaking, no strings attached, quickly becomes a six-year long love affair. Lea and Chéri float in a perfumed world of opulent comfort, with the older woman paying all the bills so her darling boy has no worries in the world. Still the clock is ticking. How will it end? Not well – you might bet on it.
I wanted to see that movie so much and, even if I know it is not wise, I expected a real feast. How not to? Stephen Frears reteams with his Dangerous Liaisons (1988) screenwriter Christopher Hampton and supporting actress Michelle Pfeiffer for an adaptation of two novels from Colette, the famed French author I adore for her intelligence and sense of humour. What’s more, it’s a Belle Epoque drama set in Paris. Was I left disappointed? Not really but the movie was hardly brilliant.
The movie is based on two novels Chéri and La Fin de Cheri written by Colette, known for the air of describing familiar lives with detached regret and a good dose of humour. Her books seemed to reflect well the real-life experience of the author herself. After leaving an unfaithful first husband, Colette, already a successful novelist, supported herself also as a music hall performer because being a writer was never quite a profitable job. That’s how she knew many courtesans in the era of La Belle Epoque , being sometimes close to them. She had affairs with both men and women, shocked tout le monde with the first onstage kiss between two women like any demimondaine worth her salt. Then she married the editor of Le Matin and was divorced at 51 after she had an affair with his 20-year-old stepson. I bet she wrote Chéri as a kind of therapy – a confession and an explanation. In those times an older woman taking a younger lover was not unheard-of but much frowned upon. Enough about Colette and her problems, let’s asses the film itself.
In short I could say the success of Stephen Frears’ “Chéri” begins and ends with its casting. Near the beginning of Colette’s novel Lea gives her young lover a necklace with 49 pearls. We can imagine there is one pearl for every year of her age. Michelle Pfeiffer, as Lea de Lonval, is still a great beauty, but nearing that age when a woman starts counting her pearls if she is fortunate enough to have them. Her lover is 24 years younger than she. Six years pass and, in a way, the whole movie is about how 25 and 49 are not the same as 31 and 55, especially if a woman is the older part of that inequality. Lea is much more intelligent than her friends and also tragically self-aware: while enjoying afternoon tea with some former colleagues, which tends to be an amusing, banter-filled affair, she shudders with revulsion at the sight of a portly woman of about her own age — although less well preserved — clutching what looks to be a teenager to her décolletage. It is obvious she doesn’t wish a similar fate but she can hardly fight her own heart.
Rupert Friend, playing Lea’s lover, the title Chéri, is 27 and looks younger. They are both accomplished actors, which is important, because “Chéri” tells a story of nuance and insinuation, concealed feelings and hidden fears. If you look for action, well, look elsewhere – it is not a rollercoaster movie. Kathy Bates as Charlotte, the robust mother of Cheri, delivers a performance that’s almost exaggerated, but her spark and jibes are much needed and appreciated throughout – without them the movie would turn into a boring melodrama.
Lea knows sooner and Chéri later that what they had was invaluable and irreplaceable. Cheri is about learning to love and accepting one’s age and the consequences of both once realization truly sinks in. However, I couldn’t help but feel like the story was simply going through the motions, never really surprising me or moving me one way or another. I would have thought Frears would play up the romantic angle a little more, especially considering we are talking about the city of lights here.
Of course the point of the film is not necessarily about the romance between the two leads per se, but giving the audience a stronger emotional connection to the two of them would have only made the final minutes that much more effective, not to mention the rest of the movie on a whole. I also caught myself wishing to see more of the Belle Epoque settings. Lea’s residence was nice, but it was really strange that I never saw her go out and enjoy herself; I understand she wasn’t invited to private balls and official functions but what prevented her from going, for example, to a theater or an opera, a cinema or even a cafe de nuit? When I come to think about it she never even went shopping. I suppose it was influenced by the budgetary limits and costs of preparing appropriate sets and it is a pity – in my opinion the movie would be better, more interesting to watch, if it included some of those scenes, as expensive as they go.
Overall, Cheri is a perfectly enjoyable film, but one you probably won’t take much away from or lose much sleep over discussing. Still I don’t regret watching it – what does remain is an overall sense of beauty, both in the film and the face of Michelle Pfeiffer, a woman seemingly shot, at times, without a trace of makeup and still looking at least 10 years her younger. I kept thinking the director was definitely kinder to Lea than her creator, Colette – in her books the heartbroken prostitute aged with less grace, getting soon overweight and ugly to a point that, in the end, her beloved Cheri didn’t recognize her anymore.