The last time Michelle Pfeiffer collaborated with director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, the hit film Dangerous Liaisons was the result. Cheri shares more than a passing resemblance in terms of location (France), genre (costume drama), and themes (love, betrayal, and power). Pfeiffer however has swapped role: rather than an ingénue preyed upon by a deliciously seductive John Malkovich, she's now cast as Lea, a fading courtesan who has raked it in by selling her affections to some of Europe's richest men.
Set in Belle Époque Paris where the days and nights pass in an opium haze of hedonistic pursuits, the story centres on the relationship between 40-plus Lea and 19-year-old Cheri (Rupert Friend) the son of another middle-aged courtesan Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates).
Cheri is thoroughly partied-out by the time he crumples into the arms of the older, wiser Lea. She takes up Cheri as her beau, imagining it won't last beyond the summer. It's an arrangement that suits his mother who enjoys letting Lea pay for her son's lavish lifestyle for a while. Nobody expects the flirtation to develop into love, but six years later Cheri and Lea are still together, with Lea treading a line between mother, wife, and soulmate to the spoilt young man.
Friend is highly watchable as Cheri, showing off the sex appeal that bagged him Kiera Knightly for a girlfriend. Lea says of him: “I can't criticise his character mainly because he doesn't seem to have one,” but that's unfair. Apathy defines a character as much as curiosity, and Friend is a master at depicting Cheri's world-weary languor.
When Madame Peloux arranges for Cheri to be married to the teenage daughter of another courtesan, their relationship has to end. Lea is heartbroken and finds it hard to slip back into her old lifestyle. “Being with someone for six years is like following your husband to the colonies,” she says. “By the time you come back, you've forgotten what to wear and nobody remembers who you are.”Michelle Pfeiffer has been canny and brave in accepting the role of a beautiful woman whose looks are fading with age. She's pre-empted any comments about her own appearance (which is still fantastic) by making a film which confronts the subject of ageing intelligently and sensitively.
The closing shot of a pale, tired Pfeiffer looking into a mirror, echoes the ending of Dangerous Liaisons where Glenn Close's character does a similar thing. Self-referential scenes like this suggest that director Frears is deliberately courting comparisons with his earlier film, but if so, they're unlikely to be wholly favourable. Cheri is not as romantic, sharp or sexy as Dangerous Liaisons. This time round, Frears has gone for a playful style with some larger-than-life characters who wouldn't be out of place in a sitcom.
An intrusive narrator also didn't help. Particularly as it was a male voice and the novel Cheri was written by a female, Colette. This deceased French author is known for being forced by her husband to write under a male pseudonym for years. It makes you wonder how she'd feel about being made to swap sex again in the film version of her novel.
Despite this, I'd still recommend this film. There are some clever insights and one-liners courtesy of Colette. But most of all, it's visually delightful with stunning sets and gorgeous couture.
Paris looks like a daydream of itself: empty cobbled streets, plush cosmopolitan restaurants, and elegant turn-of-the-century architecture. The scenes in Lea's apartment were filmed in a villa designed and owned by Hector Guimard, who created the Art Nouveau entrances to the Paris Metro. The scenes in Normandie and Biarittz are equally likely to make you want to hop on the next Eurostar to France.
If you want a treat for the eyes, go and see Cheri. It may be more style than substance but as a courtesan would attest, beauty has a value all of its own.