Once one of the grand horizontals of Paris' Belle Époque, Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer) is ready for retirement and a hobby. She picks a particularly ruinous kind: the care and feeding of a beautiful, diffident young man nicknamed Cheri (Rupert Friend).
Cheri is the son of Madame Peloux. What both the courtesan and the courtesan's child had in mind was a dirty fortnight in the Norman countryside. The narrator explains that the tryst lasted six years. And now the still beautiful but aging Lea is quite hooked on Cheri.
Meanwhile, Mme. Peloux has got it into her head that she wants grandchildren to dandle on her lap, and thus she's arranged a suitable marriage for Cheri. With a virgin, of course.
Cheri director Stephen Frears reunites with scriptwriter Christopher Hampton and Pfeiffer to revisit the type of games all three of them played 20 years ago in Dangerous Liaisons. There are reference points between this film and the older one. Having a meal alone, in misery, Lea's glance falls on a fork, and we can hear in our mind's ear the speech Glenn Close's Marquise made about learning how to look cheerful while under the table she stuck a fork into the back of her hand. The two films end similarly, too.
The difference, in two words: no Malkovich. The male point of view, the reverse angle, is neglected in this adaptation of two Jazz Age novels by Collette. Today's crop of young men seem to hate to play spoiled, weak-willed characters. Friend, as Cheri, is pretty but inert, a plaything and nothing more, and he doesn't give us anything but surfaces.
The film brings out Pfeiffer's gloriousness, her translucent skin, the limbs and hair still golden. And yet Pfeiffer is best when the mask drops. When Lea sits up in bed, weeping--nay, howling--for her faithless, worthless lover, Cheri gets it right emotionally as well as visually. This juiciness complements Cheri's other good qualities: the mauve and poison-green hues, the lavish wardrobes, the gardens crowded with almost-blown flowers. An audience of a certain age will admire Pfeiffer's brave way of holding off time. Curled up in bed with her Cheri, she parries a compliment about her body. A good one lasts forever, she says.
Lea is posed as the normal member of a bizarre family of professional companions. Afternoons chez Peloux become ever more odd. The courtesan Lili (Gaye Brown) adorned with a mercury-red wig and a pompon hat, resembles nothing more romantic than Bozo the Clown. She is the plaything of a duke's young son, who is one-third her size. The idea of such garishness must be to make Lea look the best and the brightest of her profession.
She does, yet Kathy Bates' Mme. Peloux walks away with this picture--not that she does much walking. Peloux, too, is flamboyantly dressed. When one of her circle murmurs about the impropriety of a woman going off with a strange man, Peloux sighs knowledgably, "All men are strange."
Peloux's motivation isn't clear; it can't just be plain sadism that makes her step aside when her son puts the moves on Lea. If Peloux's compliance is a plan to embarrass her friend and rival, there's too much that could possibly go wrong. Still, the elegantly bitchy dialogue is rich. Examining Pfeiffer's neck, Peloux comments, "Don't you find that now that the skin is less firm, it holds perfume so much better?"
Cheri isn't firm either, but it does hold its perfume. The film appeals as a gaze-fest at Pfeiffer, for its sturdy plot and finally for its heart-tugging story of heartlessness.
'Cheri' opens on Friday, June 26, at the Rialto Cinemas Lakeside. 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.525.4840.
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