It’s such a pleasure to watch Michelle Pfeiffer hold the screen in a way she hasn’t for far too long that one can almost forgive “Cheri” its flaws. Almost.
Based on novels by Colette, “Cheri” reunites Pfeiffer with director Stephen Frears and writer Christopher Hampton, with whom she worked on “Dangerous Liaisons” two decades ago. The story is set 150 years later, but the subject is the same: love, lust and the manipulation of both in the name of personal power.
Pfeiffer plays Lea de Lonval, a rich, aging Paris courtesan during La Belle Epoque. Enriched by past lovers, she agrees to take the son of a friend – another wealthy courtesan (Kathy Bates) – to the south of France to get him away from bad influences in Paris.
The boy, known as Cheri (Rupert Friend), is only 19, though he’s already developed a reputation as a hard-living roué whose sad eyes and floppy hair make him irresistible to women. Though Lea has known him practically since he was born, she finds herself amused at the prospect of a fling with the youth.
The fling turns into a six-year affair – one that comes to an abrupt end when Cheri’s conniving mother arranges a rich marriage to a rival’s daughter. Lea, crushed, sends him off, then takes to her bed in tears, dismayed at her own emotional attachment.
Even as Lea pulls herself together and moves on, Cheri is realizing the magnitude of his mistake: that Lea is the love of his life and that he should have fought to keep her in his life.
The upper-hand in this relationship ebbs and flows between these two in subtle ways, even as Frears has fun with the manners, the slights and insults spoken and unspoken in this kabuki-like demi-monde.
Yet there’s something dry and detached about the drama and the romance. As inviting a figure as Pfeiffer is, as much as you want to get lost in her blue eyes and luxuriate in Consolata Boyle’s sumptuous costumes, Pfeiffer unfortunately has to share the screen with Rupert Friend, whose Cheri is a callow cad who needs nothing so much as a good slap. We’re forced to watch him swan around, coasting on charisma that is only apparent to Frears. Friend isn’t nearly interesting enough to warrant the emotional tempest that Lea goes through; the movie suffers as a result.
Still, any chance to watch the luminous Michelle Pfeiffer is a blessing. In the case of “Cheri,” it’s a mixed one.