Miramax Film’s “Chéri” marks the reunion of director Stephen Frears, screenwriter Christopher Hampton, and actress Michelle Pfeiffer, who previously worked together on 1988’s deliciously evil costume drama “Dangerous Liaisons.” Here, Pfeiffer trades in the virginal innocence of her “Liaisons” character for the hardened beauty and shrewd business acumen of the less than virginal Lea de Lonvsal. Set during the prosperous Belle Époque era in pre World War I France, “Chéri” tells the charming and ultimately heartbreaking story of how Lea, an aging courtesan, finds herself falling unexpectedly in love with a man young enough to be her…well, son. That synopsis might make it tempting to label “Chéri” “cougar” cinema, but let’s allow that somewhat degrading term to rest on billboards advertising the latest pedestrian sitcom, rather than a film this pedigreed. More after the jump:
Based on two novels by bad girl French writer Colette, “Chéri” opens with Lea (Pfeiffer) contemplating retirement from the world’s oldest living profession. Her life dramatically changes, however, when she’s recruited by Madame Peloux, played with usual hambone relish by Oscar winner Kathy Bates, to teach her spoiled son Chéri, played by the Orlando Bloom-ish Rupert Friend, the ways of women. Lea accepts the assignment and soon finds herself falling for her young charge. A threat to the union is made, however, when Madame Peloux arranges for Chéri to marry a more age appropriate woman. Having built a career on her ability to remain emotionally detached from clients, Lea easily lets Chéri go. This decision later tortures her when she realizes Chéri may have been her one last chance at real love.
The stifling of Lea’s feelings is something Pfeiffer renders powerfully on her still hauntingly beautiful face. The actress is also equally adept at finding the wit and humor in Hampton’s script. Overall, it’s a sparkling performance that’s likely to be Oscar nominated since it marks a perfect bookend to Pfeiffer’s nominated work twenty years ago in “Liaisons.” The supporting cast is also strong, notably Bates, who seems able to handle costume drama and axe wielding horror with equal aplomb.
Credit is due, of course, to director Stephen Frears for guiding the performances. His entertaining and sumptuous depiction of pre-World War I France is also aided by top notch costume and production design, along with richly textured cinematography by Darius Khondji (“Evita,” “Seven”).
If, in the end, “Chéri” is a slightly minor love story, due to the fact that it all takes place in a terribly well mannered setting amongst mostly amicable characters and lacks the dramatic backdrop of a war or sinking ship, its lesson not to let the one you love slip away is hardly minor.
Bonus material includes a brief “Making of” featurette and two deleted scenes.
The creators of “Dangerous Liaisons” reteam to bring you a sumptuously filmed and well acted story about the love affair between an older woman and a much younger man. Just don’t call it “cougar” cinema.
“Chéri” is rated R for some sexual content and brief drug use. It has a run time of 93 minutes.