A perfectly watchable and enjoyable period romantic comedy-drama, with gorgeous scenery, decadent costumes and a fantastic role for Michelle Pfeiffer. I still couldn’t help but feel that it was a bit of a wasted potential, considering the talent involved.
Despite having no particular preconceived ideas about the movie, I was still taken aback by the movie’s opening, a comedic, frenetic and archly narrated collage about the famous high-society courtesans of the Belle Epoque. Mixed in with what I presume are real-life figures of the time is the introduction for our heroine Lea de Lonval, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. As an aside, it’s always fascinating to see how the standards of beauty change and shift as time goes by. Pfeiffer is rightly known as one of the most ravishingly beautiful stars of the modern cinema, but she looks out of place among the images of the celebrated beauties from the pre-World War I era.
Lea is still a great beauty, nearing that age when the years begin to catch up with you. Her profession made her fabulously wealthy, but also put limits on her social circle: rich and famous courtesans have little choice but make friends with other rich and famous courtesans. One such friend that Lea has never really liked is Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates), a one-time competitor with a nineteen-year-old son, called Chéri (“darling”) by everyone in their circle.
Chéri (Rupert Friend) is an aimless youth and has a number of bad habits that need reining in, so Charlotte reaches out to Lea and asks her to take the boy in for some “education”. Both parties find each other’s company so agreeable that what was meant to be a short fling lasts for six years, with Lea paying all the bills. Their comfortable life together comes to an end when Charlotte starts pining for grandchildren, and arranges for her son to be married to a daughter of yet another mutual courtesan acquaintance. Long used to having her emotions under control, Lea feigns world-weary indifference to the news, but secretly her heart is broken.
As the movie tells it, the tragedy of Lea and Chéri is that they were meant to be each other’s great once-in-a-lifetime love, yet were not born on the same day. It’s a scenario rife with potential for drama, so it’s disappointing that, for most of its running time, the movie felt weirdly tension-free, as if it was missing a true dramatic spine. Director Stephen Frears had much greater success juggling witty comedy and tragedy in a story about the dangers of playing with human heart in his 1988 adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons. While it’s impossible to be bored with a movie that offers so much visual candy and fine performances, Chéri just doesn’t reach the same heights.
I think the fatal flaw here is the choice to completely skip over the lovers’ six years together: a bit more romance and focus on the connection between Lea and Chéri could have given viewers a stronger emotional connection to them as a couple. As it is, the movie jumps from Lea being mildly annoyed with Chéri to being deeply in love.
Michelle Pfeiffer is always a joy to watch and she is perfectly suited for Lea, playing her with elegance, grace and depths of emotion hidden behind a mask of cynicism. I felt genuinely moved by Lea’s final monologue, as the full meaning of their age gap and its consequences truly sinks in. Rupert Friend has the unenviable task of making you care about a vacuous, pampered bon vivant who wants for nothing and occasionally shows a cruel streak, and mostly succeeds. I also enjoyed the scenes of Lea and her former colleagues reminiscing about their old days, and sighed audibly at the glamorous scenes of sun-kissed Southern France. I’m so sick of Melbourne winter!