Michelle Pfeiffer as an aging courtesan
by Jason Blair
CHÉRI: Directed by Stephen Frears. Written by Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Colette. Cinematography, Darius Khondji. Music, Alexander Desplat. Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Friend and Kathy Bates. Miramax Films, 2009. R. 92 minutes.
Michelle Pfeiffer, whose five-year acting hiatus ended triumphantly with 2007’s Hairspray, returns, after another short interval, in Chéri. Pfeiffer is the primary strength of Chéri as well as a symbol of its weakness. Despite her convincing performance, I couldn’t shake the sense that Pfeiffer, along with co-star Kathy Bates, looked out of place in the film, which is about a couple of aging courtesans in France just prior to WWI. Pfeiffer’s beauty, although occasionally used to mask a wicked disposition (Stardust, The Witches of Eastwick), suggests an innocence that’s particularly American in its blend of openness and naiveté, which is hardly the face required for a world-class prostitute in Paris. (Bates, whom I’ll always associate with Unsinkable Molly Brown from Titanic, suffers similarly, but isn’t given nearly as much screen time.) Director Stephen Frears, who worked with Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons, might simply have suggested that his stars learn a French accent. Without those accents, the material feels loose and slippery. When Pfeiffer’s offscreen, Chéri feels like it might capsize at any moment.
Chéri, which is based upon the novel by Colette, is the story of Lea de Lonval (Pfeiffer), a professional mistress nearing retirement, and her love for the much younger Chéri (Rupert Friend), who just happens to the son of Lea’s friendly rival Madame Peloux (Bates). The couple faces obstacles aplenty which, if you believe the old adage that only trouble is interesting, should make for a satisfying trip to the cinema. But the script, which is both stagey and underdeveloped, is largely to blame for the failures of Chéri, which subverts what it should accentuate and accentuates what it should subvert. But blame is easily spread here, and some must fall to Frears. Chéri is about as seductive as a handful of snails and, what’s more, tells the same story presented more skillfully two years ago in Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress. This is no minor disappointment. Director Frears, whose résumé isn’t without the occasional misstep (Mary Reilly, The Hi-Lo Country) is responsible for a number of films astonishing in quality as well as variety: Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity, The Queen.
Thus, while not a terrible film, Chéri is to be faulted for all the talent going to waste. At times I caught echoes of Benjamin Button in Chéri — a coincidence considering Alexander Desplat scored the terrific music for both films — what with the anxiety generated by the age differences here, but that only underscored how small and insignificant Chéri felt by comparison.
Chéri opens Friday, Aug. 14, at the Bijou.