Starring: Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Friend, Kathy Bates
Directed by: Stephen Frears (‘The Queen”)
Written by: Christopher Hampton (“Atonement”)
If you thought the term “cougar” could only be used as a reference in pop culture to describe women like Demi Moore and Mariah Carey who pursue younger men, then the film “Chéri,” based on the novel by early 20th century French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, proves you’re a few decades late.
Set in 1920s Paris during the belle époque era, “Chéri” follows Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer), a well-to-do courtesan (a classy name for a swanky prostitute) who falls in love with an enchanting young man named Chéri (Rupert Friend, who looks like a gothic version of Orlando Bloom).
Chéri’s mother Madame Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates), a retired courtesan and former rival of Lea, allows the rendezvous to happen since she knows her son will be in good hands and obtain the sexual experience he needs before settling down. The affair would also help Lea keep her status as one of the most desired escorts in Paris.
But what is supposed to be a casual relationship for both Lea and Chéri turns out to be a lot more. Six years later, the couple is still together in what is described as a “soothing routine of habit.” Their love dissolves, however, when Charlotte forces him into an arranged marriage with a woman his own age since the Madame desperately wants grandchildren. While Lea knew the day would come when Chéri would leave the nest, she is devastated but hides her emotions well. “It’s her turn now,” she says to her young lover before letting him go.
Chéri, too, finds it hard to let go of his past the longer he stays in his dreary marriage. All he can think about is his time with Lea and eventually returns to her like a lost little boy. It’s during these scenes of self-pity and overall misery that make “Cheri” hard to bear after a while. It’s not enough that Pfeiffer gives a fine performance as this woman of a “certain age,” and that Bates steals most of the show with a vivacious personality, the era piece doesn’t capture the same romanticism as the last time director Stephan Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton collaborated for 1988’s “Dangerous Liaisons,” which earned Pfeiffer her first of three Academy Award nominations.
Pfeiffer shouldn’t be returning to the big dance this year, although stranger things have happened. “Chéri” is cinematically beautiful with all the pomp and circumstance it delivers in costume and setting. The story, however, feels like a cheap one-night stand rather than a daring love story and is not as overly tragic as it makes itself out to be.