British director Stephen Frears has a benign relationship with strong actresses. Thanks to terrific scripts, expert lighting, and a nurturing work environment, he’s sent six of them to Oscar nominations: (Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeifer for Dangerous Liaisons (1988), Anjelica Huston and Annette Benning for The Grifters (1990), Judi Dench for Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005) and Helen Mirren for The Queen (2006), for which she did win the Oscar.
With his new movie, Cheri, Frears (paired with his Liaisons partner, screenwriter Christopher Hampton) seems to be again guiding Michelle Pfeiffer down the golden pathway. Her Helen-of-Troy face, still incredibly beautiful at age 50, framed by bonnets and lace and sparkling jewels, is the central commanding image of the film. You can’t leave this movie and not be re-imagining the caressing close-ups of Michelle Pfeiffer for days afterward. Not an unpleasant after-effect.
If you liked Dangerous Liaisons 12 years ago, you’ll like Cheri. Though set in times about 150 years apart, the two films share a similar Gallic mindset about the essential importance of food and perfume, a nearly wicked sumptuousness in clothing and personal accessories, and a keen curiosity about the mysterious workings of sexual love. Every single shot in Cheri is exquisite. If your attention is not pulled by the beautiful people, you’ll be enchanted with the costumes and jewelry, the gardens and the coaches, the art, and architecture and the decorative wallpaper, the dens of iniquity and Maxim’s restaurant where the rich and fashionable went to be seen, the balconies of Paris and the beaches of Biarritz. For any artist or lover of history, the movie is worth seeing just for its visual exhilaration. I practically swooned from it all.
Cheri is based on two novels (Cheri, and The Last of Cheri) written in the 1920s by the famous French novelist known as Colette, and set in the pre-WWI era known as La Belle Epoque (or the Gilded Age in the U.S.) This was the last great golden age for the upper classes, when they had plenty of money to throw around, and lots of lower class people running around to catch it. Before WWI came and ended all the fun with the slaughter of over 15 million people, indolence reigned supreme.
When Cheri opens, trouble may be brewing on the world stage, but all is still well and good among the small community of Parisian courtesans. Not able to socialize with ordinary women, the courtesans have only one another as acquaintances. Not friends, really, their work required too much competition among them, and required the keeping of many secrets and the spreading of gossip. None of them really has much experience in expressing true feelings about anything, and certainly not about love. Courtesans specialized in the arts of love but they would never commit professional suicide by actually falling in love. Working girls always have their code.
Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer) is one of the most famous courtesans, her lovers ranging from the scions of noble families to the barons of industry. No sweet-talking, good-looking penniless poets for this smart cookie. She’s played her cards well and become independently wealthy, with a sun-drenched apartment in Paris, a mansion in the country, plenty of servants and travel options anywhere she wants to go.
At age 50, Lea is slimmer than the average plumpish courtesan but, while she looks in the mirror and sees sagging and a few wrinkles, the face that looks back at her is as lovely and elegant as it always was. Nevertheless, she knows how to tell time–she informs her long-time maid and confidante that she’s going to retire. Should she open a shop like other retired courtesans, or invest in a business or–oh, what? Lea has never wanted to work. Her only occupational skills are those she’s developed between the sheets. How will she fill her time? The future seems bleak.
Then she goes to lunch at the mansion of another retired courtesan, the round and ribald Madame Peloux, played with ample glee by Kathy Bates (About Schmidt). Madame has a major problem. Her son, 19-year old Fred (played by 28-year old Rupert Friend, The Young Victoria) is becoming a wastrel.
Actually he is a wastrel. He sleeps all day, drinks all night, insults his mother and has not a whit of ambition. He doesn’t read, he doesn’t write poetry, he doesn’t fashion himself an artiste. Heck, he doesn’t even have any hobbies. Would Lea be so kind as to take Fred under her wing for a short while and make a man of him? Sure, says Lea, not having any other pressing engagements. She takes Fred home, bestows her pet name on him, Cheri, and puts more than her wing under him. “I’m probably making a fool of myself,” Lea says, enchanted with his pretty face, “but then again, why not? Life is short!””
Six years later Lea and Cheri are still the inseparable couple, living for the moment, irresponsible, empty-headed, but oh so incredibly fashionable and gorgeous. Lea has grown more indulgent towards Chéri, mothering him, pampering him, giving in to his every whim with utter delight. Cheri is just as self-centered and fey as he always was. Living in his prettified cocoon with the adoring Lea, he hasn’t matured a day. “I can’t criticize his character,” Lea admits to her masseuse, “mainly because he doesn’t seem to have one!” In truth, the kid has no redeeming qualities whatsoever except that he’s constantly around, immensely loyal, and always ready to have fun. That’s all Lea seems to need.
Now age 25, Cheri/Fred is going nowhere fast and Mom is fed up. She arranges a marriage between him and Edmee (Felicity Jones, Brideshead Revisited), who is the neglected daughter of another courtesan. The young couple will be well taken care of by their financially astute mothers so their future is rosy. Edmee is madly in love with Cheri and wants to make him a good wife. But away from Lea for the first time and now in the arms of a strange young woman, Cheri finally realizes what was obvious to everyone but him–he loves Lea and only Lea.
Lea, meanwhile, realizes that she has indeed broken her rule and fallen in love with Cheri. She’s in terrible pain at his departure, feeling for the first time the pangs of unrequited love. The scene in which she’s sitting in bed, throwing her hair back and arching her back in agony will tear your heart out. She runs away to the beach to try to find new clients, but her heart isn’t in it. When she returns to Paris, Cheri finds her, barges into her apartment and demands that she allow him to come back to her. Ah, the bliss of reunion.
Alas, the separation has brought with it the unwelcome spectre of reality. Lea must force herself to accept the self-evident truth–she is an old woman, three decades older than Cheri–and he has a wife.
As the final voice-over narration tells us bleakly and, for me, way too quickly, the shadow of war is about to darken the streets of Paris. La Belle Epoque is over. Soon the young men will put on military uniforms and head to the trenches. Millions will die; many will survive, wishing they hadn’t and when they return, life as they once knew it is gone forever and there is no place for old lovers…