Directed by Stephen Frears. Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathy Bates, Rupert Friend, Felicity Jones, Frances Tomelty, Anita Pallenberg, Harriet Walter, Iben Hjejle. (2009, R, 100 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., June 26, 2009
At the end of the Belle Époque, Colette wrote of Madame Léa de Lonval and her “big blue wandering eyes,” but one can’t really imagine anything wandering about Michelle Pfeiffer. (Big blue, for sure, but wandering?) Beneath that ethereal coo of a voice, she has a signature sharpness, the impression of hard angles swathed in a deceptively delicate frame; even in collapse – and she’s had some mighty swoons in The Age of Innocence and Frears' Dangerous Liaisons – there’s fixedness and control. They don’t make women, sexy but regal, like Pfeiffer much anymore, and Cheri is quite a monument to her. (Good on that, because not only do they not make women like that anymore, they don’t hire them to top-bill major motion pictures, either.) Here, as a courtesan aging out of an industry and an epoch, Pfeiffer is enmeshed in another dangerous liaison, this one with the child of a once fellow, now former, courtesan named Madame Peloux, who is played by the sporting but still miscast Kathy Bates. (Onetime Rolling Stones muse Anita Pallenberg, who knows a thing or two about driving men wild, pops up as another retired courtesan.) Peloux’s son, Chéri (Friend), is spoiled, unformed, and 30-plus years Léa’s junior. Léa takes him on initially as a project, a twilight-years lark – call it expiration-date dating – and Chéri is content to coast through the relationship as with everything else in his overindulged and underloved life. But it isn't until their forced separation, when Chéri allows his mother to arrange a marriage for him, that the true depths of Chéri and Léa’s feelings for each other emerge – complex feelings colored by real-world concerns of practicality, propriety, and the tragic mismatch of their birthdates (and what a pleasure to watch a romantic drama in which the recognition of love, the simple statement of fact, doesn’t mark the end-reel waltz into ever-after). This is sensual, cerebral, and surprisingly weighty stuff, which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been following the careers of Frears, critically neglected, perhaps, because he’s so hard to pin down (good luck tracking a CV that’s gone from My Beautiful Laundrette to beautiful Grifters and The Queen in a public relations crisis), and his screenwriter, Christopher Hampton, who can add Colette to the list of authors – Graham Greene, Ian McEwan, Joseph Conrad – he’s done right by. Only in its last moments does Cheri faintly bobble, with an overpacked final confrontation, no room for reflection, and a rushed coda. That epilogue is something of a cheat, really – it plucks Chéri’s fate from Colette’s follow-up novella, the aptly named The Last of Chéri, but doesn’t divulge Léa’s, which was to age, inevitably, into “a broad back and the padded cushion of a fat neck beneath a head of thick grey vigorous hair.” Then again, Pfeiffer with a fat neck? Like anybody'd believe that.