Directed by Stephen Frears
As I watched “Cheri,” the new film from the Colette novel,I thought how lucky we are that there are still features being made like this one. Doomed by the current box-office trends to lose money, this is the kind of film that only committed film aficionados would dare to make – even more, to make it knowing it will only cost
them money. Perhaps I’m wrong; I would like to be, and the film will make its money in other countries. I hope so.
“Cheri” – the masculine form of the word – is the story of an aging courtesan, Léa de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer, playing close to her age of 51), in the years of the belle epòque, before the first world war. She has retired from the business now but is wealthy enough and still close to a couple of other retired courtesans, among them Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates), who has a 19-year-old son, called by everyone “Cheri,” who is gorgeous but a complete wastrel. Madame Peloux asks Léa to take him under her wing, so to speak, and help him grow up.
What is a surprise to everyone is that she and he fall in love, and six years later are still together. And then Léa’s friend Madame Peloux, thinking only of her son, finds him a young wife, Edmée, and he marries her. Director Stephen Frears and scriptwriter Christopher Hampton have not ended that film at that point, and we watch he stunning Pfeiffer as she must deal with this blow.
The film’s sets are stunning, particularly Léa’s spectacular Art Nouveau bed, as becomes a courtesan of her class, and so is the rest of “Cheri.” Rupert Friend is stunning, with an almost girlish face and cheekbones you could cut Roquefort with; Pfeiffer’s voice is a bit limited, varying from mid-Atlantic to East Coast, and yet that is no problem for us. She remains as beautiful as ever, and we recall from her role in “White Oleander” that she still has fine acting chops. But the film’s power comes from the Colette novel, Hampton’s script, and Frear’s direction. They turn what might have been a failure into a triumph.