'Cheri' a Pfeiffer Showcase, Little Else

Directed by: Stephen Frears, Runtime: 86 minutes
Grade: C

Within the first eleven minutes of Stephen Frears' Chéri, nearly-retired courtesan Lea (Michelle Pfeiffer) discovers a passionate, physical link between her and far-younger acquaintance Fred Pelaux (Rupert Friend) -- a womanizing lush who refers to Lea as "noun-noun" in a babyish voice leading up to their first enamored kiss. It's his sweet nickname for Lea from his childhood, where they shared a relationship through his mother Charlotte (Kathy Bates), a close friend to Lea and fellow retired courtesan. Throughout a six-year period following the couple's first kiss, a rapid jump through narrative befitting the author's style, the two live a lush life with no work, lots of "play", and plenty of narcissistic whining from the pampered Chéri in the French countryside. Sounds maddeningly quick and a little infuriating, doesn't it?

Chéri's concept is there, a stab at elegiac reflection on ageless infatuation with the youngest of the twosome trying to catch up, but the way it's handled transforms this adaptation of Colette's novel into a well-dressed yet emotionless mope fest. Imagine an hour and a half of his insufferable and awkward blathering, while he squirms within the swaddling of the aging "lady of the night". Sure, vanity's part of the story -- the preservation of youth, no matter how selfish or unabashed it can be -- yet the slapdash way it's handled holds little emotional context and far less lustful abandon than needed from its icy facade.

As we follow Chéri's reckless second-guessing in his relationship with Lea, director Frears asks us to invest ourselves in his transformation from a whimpering silver-spoon Parisian to an awakened young man -- and quickly. It extends further than Rupert Friend's able to keep up, much like his character's relationship with Lea. Instead of brooding and reflective, he's little more than a dour sap complaining in a corner. If that were the only dimension to his character, we'd be in the clear; however, Chéri's the boundless apple in Lea's mind, a man (boy) whom she's fallen deeply for over their lackadaisical time together in the French countryside. Quite frankly, it's a miracle that anyone's able to see her reasoning in falling so deeply for his self-absorbed, whiny ramblings, whether it's spewing from a chiseled, swooning physical specimen or not. Ryan Phillippe's turn as Valmont in Cruel Intentions convinces more as a promiscuous yet transformative brat than Friend as Chéri, which doesn't bode well as he branches from Lea's comfort and into the latches of an arranged marriage put in motion simply for "grandchildren". It's not so much a problem with the character's scripting or with Friend's performance, really, but a clumsy and infuriating combination of the two that collides into a poorly-drawn complainer.

Ideas are flowing here, including reflections on a misaligned love, yet the chemistry between the leads isn't existent enough to sell the heartbreaking layers that the story offers. Instead, Michelle Pfeiffer gathers together as much of the raw emotionality she can from Colette's novel, which makes us grasp the aging courtesan's mindset of her faded glory years as something of a starlet. Through textured, slight physical drama and a wide-eyed sense of absorbing both her infantile lover and his mother -- woefully given life by miscast Kathy Bates into a cackling, silly caricature -- Lea's internal realizations intrigue far more than this oddly-mismatched love she shares for her unshaped man. Pfeiffer almost makes the film worth the time, as her graceful aging and lust for life coaxes us into believing in the feelings she shares for her leech-like confused young love, even when we can't come close to fathoming it ourselves.

Though photographed and costumed with impeccable precision to wrap us in sumptuous Old French splendor, there's emptiness and a lack of gut-wrenching hunger underneath Chéri. Stephen Frears is no stranger to passion, whether we're talking about stately focus in The Queen, a persevering eye for the stage in Mrs. Henderson Presents, or the bashful yet hearty sense of endearment with High Fidelity. However, his experience with literal passionate yearning in Dangerous Liaisons should've come into play more within his take on Colette's novel, as the story of surface-level qualms and an unquenchable lust between two highly-desirable entities carries very little sizzle -- emotional, physical, or otherwise. At least it gets the beautiful setting down for our visual delight and respectfully introduces us to the fading courtesan's whims and desires, even when the squashed chemistry between our leads leaves it rather hollow.


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