Judge Clark Douglas is contemplating retiring from the courtesan business and settling down with a nice bag of nachos.
In a game of seduction, never fall in love.
"I can't criticize his character, mainly because he doesn't seem to have one."
Facts of the Case
Lea (Michelle Pfeiffer, Batman Returns) is a highly-regarded courtesan living in early 20th Century France. She has had her share of men over the years, but now that she is approaching the age of 50, she is contemplating retirement. As a favor to her friend and colleague Madame Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates, About Schmidt), Lea agrees to take Charlotte's 24-year-old son Chéri (Rupert Friend, Pride and Prejudice), ahem, under her wing. It initially begins as just another assignment for Lea. She provides Chéri with constant physical pleasure while also training him to be a proper and respectable gentleman. The idea is that by the time Chéri is ready to marry, he will be experienced and refined. Alas, the arrangement turns into something a bit too passionate, and both parties are more than a little unhappy when Charlotte arranges for Chéri to marry the young Edmee (Felicity Jones, Brideshead Revisited). Chéri and Lea go their separate ways, but secretly yearn for each other in the years that follow. Is there any hope that they will ever find their way back into each other's arms?
For whatever reason, director Stephen Frears has remained a somewhat overlooked talent for decades. Every now and then he'll produce a film that earns some attention, inspiring a handful of articles regarding the fact that people really ought to appreciate Stephen Frears. Nonetheless, he continues to slip under the radar, continuing to quietly churn out very respectable films until yet another one happens to grab the attention of the public. One side of Frears is an unpredictable maverick that moves from genre to genre; the Frears that made Gumshoe, The Hi-Lo Country, High Fidelity, The Grifters and Hero. The other side of Frears is a classical traditionalist with a gift for fine-tuned period dramas like Dangerous Liasons, Mary Reilly, and Liam. It's the latter version of the director that gives us Chéri, an intriguing adaptation of the novel by the ever-controversial French writer Colette.
One of the most immediately striking things about Chéri is the fact that every character is acting to at least some degree. After all, this is upper-class Paris in the early 20th Century, and it would be immensely inappropriate (even among a group of courtesans) for a person to genuinely reveal all of their cards. Feelings are hidden, tongues are bitten, and everyone consistently insists that the status quo is as it ought to be rather than as it is. It is perhaps no surprise that women like Lea and Charlotte are so well-versed in this behavior. After all, they've made a career of being The Perfect Woman for a wide variety of awestruck men. That's part of why true romance is so dangerous in their profession: the stronger you actually feel something, the less likely that you will be able to mask it appropriately.
Caught in precisely such a challenging situation is the once-indefatigable Lea, played so masterfully by Michelle Pfeiffer. I must confess, Pfeiffer has long been one of my favorite actresses, but it's been so long since she has had a genuinely substantial role. Sure, she had fun in 2007 with the light trio of Stardust, Hairspray and I Could Never Be Your Woman, but one has to look all the way back to 2002's White Oleander to find her last meaty part. It's a shame we have seen so little of her, but then Pfeiffer is now at that age where it becomes so difficult for women to find interesting roles (or roles of any kind, for that matter). Her portrayal of Lea is a reflection of this, realizing that her current lifestyle can only continue so much longer. Her confidence remains reasonably high, but she sees her arms beginning to sag and the wrinkles beginning to appear on her face. She suffers not only from the desperation of a professional courtesan who has become too involved with a client, but also from the increasing fear that her would-be lover might soon begin to see an old woman when he looks at her. Lea spends so much time holding in her feelings; there is immense catharsis when those rare (not to mention brief and private) moments come in which she lets go of the facade.
Almost everything is more or less impeccable in Chéri, starting with Pfeiffer's essential performance and continuing through the uniformly impressive set design, costumes, musical score (by Alexandre Desplat, whose work here is as strong as his acclaimed effort on Frears' The Queen) and supporting cast. The film is well-paced and involving, bookended nicely by dryly revealing narration provided by Frears himself. Despite these virtues, there's something missing…but more on that in a moment.
The transfer is excellent, conveying the beautifully-crafted imagery with clarity, depth and detail. Period films of this sort deserve to look great, and this one most assuredly does (I'm baffled by the fact that Chéri isn't getting a Blu-ray release). Audio is also excellent, despite the very quiet nature of the film. Dialogue, sound design, and music are all restrained, but conveyed in an immersive and crystal-clear manner. The disc disappoints in the supplemental department, offering only a handful of deleted scenes and a standard-issue EPK-style making-of featurette.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is a significant problem with the film that may very well make or break the deal for a lot of viewers: the romance between Lea and Chéri is not convincing for one moment. This is largely because the title character is a spoiled twit who has pretty much nothing to offer other than good looks. He's moody and not particularly intelligent; perpetually the least interesting human being onscreen no matter whom he shares the scene with. It's easy to understand why Chéri continues to long for the experienced Lea when he is insensitively attempting to make his young new wife bend to his will, but why does Lea care about Chéri? She only offers the flimsiest of explanations; marveling over the young man's "mystery" and the fact that he doesn't share everything about himself freely. But what is there about him that causes her such agony and heartbreak? As played by Rupert Friend, Chéri is a complete bore, and his lack of charisma seriously damages the film's credibility. Ultimately, the film works for me because it is not building towards romantic fulfillment and a "happily ever after" ending, but the whole thing could have been so much better if this aspect of the movie had been stronger.
Though the critical flaw I've noted should be taken into consideration, I appreciated Chéri for its thoughtful portrait of a society and for Pfeiffer's tremendous performance. Those with inclinations towards this sort of thing should by all means give it a look, but the nearly bare-bones DVD pushes me towards recommending a rental rather than a purchase.
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