“Chéri” is not the film that I typically go for. It’s a period drama set in Paris in the 1920s and focuses on the lives of former courtesans and the relationship one has with the son of another. And yet “Chéri” had me hooked throughout with the combination of Stephen Frears’ skillful direction and Michelle Pfeiffer turning in one of the best performances of her career.
Lea de Lonval (Pfeiffer) is enjoying the life of luxury provided from her years as a courtesan, but on a casual visit to her former rival/friend Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates), she begins a relationship with Peloux’s careless and care-free son, affectionately known as Chéri (Rupert Friend). What seems like a silly little relationship extends six years and we see none of those years. Comically, the film just skips forward with Lea and Chéri living like an old married couple except that Madame Peloux wants children and it won’t do for Chéri to live out his days with a woman significantly older than himself. Thus, the two are torn apart and the remainder of the film watches them try to “move on” from a person that neither will admit is the love of their life.
At it’s core, “Chéri” is a rather depressing film about how two people are separated by choices made by others and choices made too long ago to change. And yet, the film never hits you with the weight of the lost love until the final minute at which point you just sit there, stunned and in awe, unable to leave the theatre. The film manages to hide this pain underneath gorgeous costumes and scenery and the light performances of its actors with most notably Pfeiffer playing to the depths of her character beautifully.
As I said at the opening, “Chéri” is not typically my kind of film and I applaud it for not trying to be. There are no attempts to modernize or provide parallels with current events or personalities. It’s more of a quasi-sequel to 1988’s “Dangerous Liaisons” but without Malkovich chewing the scenery and more of a human touch. “Liaisons” has a nastiness to it that’s delightful but becomes slightly tiresome in the course of two hours. “Chéri”, like its skilled courtesan lead character, manages to hide its pain so well that when it does peek through, it feels slightly awkward, although not enough to derail the final hit.
Even if period dramas aren’t usually you’re kind of film, you can’t but helped but be charmed by “Chéri” and respect its reach. While it doesn’t dress itself up in modern clothing, the film is richly textured with social commentary and honest emotion, neither of which ever feels overbearing. Held together with a fantastic performance by Michelle Pfeiffer, “Chéri” provides a nice change of pace for the modern moviegoer.
Rating —– B plus