Michelle Pfeiffer was an Academy Award nominee for Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons (1988), for which screenwriter Christopher Hampton took home a statuette. But I don’t expect literary adaptation lightning to strike again with Cheri, which is based on two novels by Colette.
Poised somewhere between The Queen (2006), High Fidelity (2000), The Grifters (1990), and My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) at the top of Frears’ prolific film and TV career and Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005) and Mary Reilly (1996) at the bottom, Cheri has all the externals you’d expect from a costume drama set in 1920s Paris. Photographed by the gifted Darius Khondji (Se7en), the stately homes and bountiful gardens could fill a week of HGTV programming. A go-to composer of the moment, Alexandre Desplat (of The Queen, and one of my favorite recent scores, The Painted Veil), has contributed lush music. If anything breaks through with end-of-year awards voters, it’ll be the sumptuous costumes of Frears veteran Consolata Boyle, which wrap around co-star Kathy Bates like so many exotic tents. And there is the luminosity of the 51-year-old Pfeiffer, as Lea, the belle of the Belle Ã‰poque.
Lea is a retired courtesan, comfortably ensconced in the home all those years on her back with rich and powerful men bought her. Regarded suspiciously by polite society, the courtesans live in a world of their own, sipping champagne and gossiping, which gives Hampton a chance to drop witty Wildean epigrams into the dialogue. One of their number, Madame Peloux (Bates), has an incorrigible, bed-hopping son, Fred (Pride & Prejudice co-star Rupert Friend), who is nicknamed “Cheri”—and proves very dear indeed to Lea, who claims the 19-year-old as her lover. Their passionate relationship ends when Peloux decides she wants grandchildren, and marries off Cheri to an eminence’s daughter. To Lea’s secret delight, marital bliss eludes the foppish Cheri. But the child-man decides to grow up, forcing painful reckonings.
On a skin-deep level, there’s a lot to appreciate about Cheri. (Stones watchers will get a kick out of seeing Anita Pallenberg, Keith Richards’ eventful ex, as one of the courtesans.) Pfeiffer still bewitches me—I’ve always figured that Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone fell for her, too, which is why they spared her from the final blood-letting of Scarface (1983) at the dawn of her career—and Lea is the flip side of her Hollywood survivor in Amy Heckerling’s unfairly obscure I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007), a playful look at ageism. Her sly and calculating Lea, who reserves her affection for her much younger lover, answers that delightful, let-it-all-hang-out performance. Time and fate, however, conspire to take their toll—and give Pfeiffer a chance to in a way reprise one of Glenn Close’s famous Liaisons scenes, which she does very penetratingly.
Unable to scratch the surface, though, is Friend. Cheri is a true “girlie man,” as feminine as his lover in his clothes and runway attitude; maybe only Johnny Depp in his Cry-Baby youth could have pulled it off. Friend, who played Depp’s lover in The Libertine (2004), just doesn’t seem to have the energy or resolve to bag two babes at a time, as he does in the film, and is a lopsided match for Pfeiffer, a cougar in her prime.
Cheri’s anamorphic transfer (2.35:1 aspect ratio) looked fine on my portable DVD player but I’ve read it doesn’t hold up on larger monitors, something a future Blu-ray release might resolve. A second release might have more features, which are limited to two brief deleted scenes (which might have folded into the film, which runs just 86 minutes) and a rote making-of featurette. Still, I learned two things, that you can take the girl out of California but you can’t take the California out of the girl (I’m used to Pfeiffer suppressing her native accent in movies like this one) and that Bates would be fun to hang out with. Commenting on meeting the disheveled Frears (who supplies the film’s too-abundant narration), she says “he looked like a man who had fallen down on his luck.”
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