Like its courtesan protagonist, Chéri is a fancy, dolled up affair, a glamorous evocation of the waning days of the Belle Époque, the last period before the grim realities of the contentious 20th century set in for France and the rest of the world. From Stephen Frears and Christopher Hampton, and starring Michelle Pfeiffer, its narrative features games of the heart and bedroom, not unlike Dangerous Liaisons, their wildly successful first collaboration. Still, there’s no depth to these surface machinations, no sense that the central romance features fully formed individuals connecting on an elemental level. It’s breezy, lightweight stuff that never avoids being inextricably entwined to the meticulously constructed milieu.
Pfeiffer plays Lea de Lonval, courtesan to the wealthy and friend to the gregarious society gossip Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates), who asks Lea to take her teenage son Chéri (Rupert Friend) under her wing. Their relationship quickly transforms into a strange, oedipal arrangement in which she simultaneously serves as mother figure and lover to Chéri. Six years later, Peloux ends their time together when she abruptly announces Chéri’s arranged marriage to Edmee (Felicity Jones). Accustomed to such developments and a pro at resisting emotional attachment Lea struggles to come to terms with her surprising feelings of anger and remorse at the news.
The rest of the picture turns on the repressed emotions and deep sense of longing that ferments as Lea and Chéri are separated. Based on the novel by Colette, the famous French writer who had her own affair with a much younger man (her stepson), it represents a concerted attempt to present a female character of greater depth and far more modern sensibilities than those one typically sees in period fare. While Chéri remains a solipsistic enigma Lea provides the story its center. She is, as written, a complex character. Fiercely proud and independent, she is able to look upon Chéri’s world with an outsider’s detachment even as she participates in it. Yet the conflict between her heart and her brain, which stands at the center of this work, never resonates as fully and forcefully as it should.
That’s in large part because Pfeiffer and Friend never generate the chemistry required to evoke the unshakable bond that could cause such trauma upon its rupturing. Nothing about the depiction of their relationship, predicated on lustful glances, romps in the bedroom and maternal conversations, remotely conveys the depth of feeling the screenplay demands. There’s not much of a spark in their mournful interactions and because of the crucial decision to skip over the six year development of their relationship it’s hard to tangibly share the profound sense of loss that overtakes both characters. That leads to a lot of scenes — for example, one in which Lea breaks down in tears, calling her lover’s name — tailor made to elicit reactions that elude them.
The cause is further hampered by the chilly visual style, which blends helicopter shots of the French countryside and palatial courtyards with mannered renderings of the games being carried out in overly manicured parlors and bedrooms. The same can be said of the actors’ rigorously formal delivery of the dialogue, rendered in the clichéd style of witty banter characteristic of any farce set before a certain period. Frears directs the picture with an evident lightness of being, parading through the more grotesque figures of this extravagant world with glee. But he’s at his best when chronicling the interactions of pretty people in pretty settings, depicting fast paced, sly flirting and the subtle back and forth that comprised the courtesan-client relationship at the time. The verisimilitude, the sense of a fully fledged, gone away world being resurrected, is there. The filmmaker gives the picture the glossy pedigree of a quality classical literature adaptation and, in casting Pfeiffer and Friend, he’s provided fans of such things sufficient eye candy. But when it comes to those details that have less to do with aesthetics and more to do with universal matters of the human heart and soul Frears, too, is at a loss.