Michelle Pfeiffer has a career triumph in "Chéri" playing an aging courtesan. Aging has never looked so good. At 49, her Lea de Lonval realizes that her glory days, along with the waning hours of La Belle Époque, are over, and so, for sport, she decides to take up with a 25-year-old dandyish Adonis named Chéri (Rupert Friend). She plans to teach him a few things before sending him on his way. What she doesn't count on is that they will fall in love with each other.
Directed by Stephen Frears, written by Christopher Hampton, and based on two celebrated novels by Colette – "Chéri" (1920) and "The Last of Chéri" (1926) – "Chéri" is being promoted as a frisky comedy. It's a great deal more melancholy than that, though. Frears summed up Lea in an interview where he stated that "she's unnerving, as though being that beautiful contains its own tragic quality." The tragedy lies in what is being taken away. For a courtesan, whose face and figure are her fortune, the diminishment of beauty is especially burdensome. But Lea's masklike radiance in this film transcends youthful allure. She's more mysteriously beautiful than ever. This is what Frears was aiming for – the incandescence of the tragic – and it is what Pfeiffer so movingly conveys.
Because she started out in the movies as glorified eye candy – she had the standard surfer chick look – it took a while for Pfeiffer to become recognized for the great actress that she is. In "The Fabulous Baker Boys," "The Age of Innocence," "The Russia House," and many other films, she has a force and a frailty that astonish. (I've always wished she could play a Chekhov heroine.) In "Chéri," as in "The Age of Innocence," she can move right into a plush period piece and give it a present-tense vitality.
It would have been easy in "Chéri" for Pfeiffer to play Lea as a weepy victim, but she understands that Lea has her pride. Pfeiffer's performance is all about what lies beneath Lea's pride. She is savvy enough to have lived extremely well off the ministrations of wealthy men, but, to her amazement and fascination, Lea for the first time finds herself in love. It's not just that Chéri brings her back to her youth. He also reminds her of what has been lost. When he leaves her for an arranged marriage, and then returns to her, she says to him, "You came back and found an old woman," and she is not simply fishing for a compliment. She means it. Lea has achieved success in life by being brutally practical. Even in love, she cannot submit to false delusions.
Frears creates a buzzing, cackling universe of old-time courtesans, including Chéri's mother, Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates), once Lea's rival, still an adversary. Bombastic, devious, her dark, sprawling home chockablock with vulgar gewgaws, Charlotte is everything Lea is not. (Charlotte spins her years by reporting that "saggy flesh holds perfume better.") Lea not only wants to rescue herself, she also wants to rescue Chéri from the clutches of such a woman. The airiness of Lea's Art Nouveau house, with its soft pastel colorations, is a blissful respite for him.
Frears and Hampton previously collaborated on "Dangerous Liaisons," which also starred Pfeiffer and to which this film no doubt will be compared. But the gamesmanship in "Chéri" is far more nuanced. The only thing at stake, ultimately, is the human heart. The film might have been even better if Rupert Friend were a stronger counterweight to Pfeiffer. He has a tendency to let his looks do his acting for him. But as Chéri, he presents the right ripe image, and, in any event, Lea's passion for him is not intended to be entirely rational.
How could it be? She muses at one point that she was born decades too early for him, but if they had met up at the same age, their liaison would have been dimensionless. Lea's sweet sorrow, not to mention Chéri's, is inextricable from their disparate years. Plenty of terrible movies know how to work your tear ducts. Here's a weepie that, in Pfeiffer's performance, touches you on the highest levels. Grade: A (Rated R for some sexual content and brief drug use.)