The tragedy of faded beauty has long been a source of literary melodramatics. While limiting in its assessment of female value, it does strike a chord amongst those who view their worth through such slippery sliding scales as talent, skill, and attraction. In her slyly satiric novels Chéri and La Fin de Chéri, famed French author Colette commented on the Belle Époque era of Parisian society with its celebrated prostitutes, idle wealth, and decadent attitudes. Using the story of a retired madam’s son, his wayward youth, and the older woman who would finally teach him about love, the novels contrasted passion with the plain truth, arguing emotional completeness vs. social responsibility. They also addressed the notion of aging and its aftermaths head on.
Now director Stephen Frears brings us his witty, droll adaptation of Colette’s works, offering Michelle Pfeiffer one of her best roles in years. She is Léa de Lonval, friend of former escort Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates). Hoping to steer her son away from the aimless debauchery he insists on partaking in, the women conspire to set Chéri (Rupert Friend) straight. What at first seems like a few weeks in the countryside sewing some wild oats turns into an epic love affair between the boy and Léa. Six years go by and everything is bliss - that is, until Madame Peloux demands grandchildren. Arranging a marriage for Chéri with Edmée (Felicity Jones), the daughter of another former ‘fallen woman’, she sets in motion a series of events that will bring both Léa and her lover to the brink of utter heartbreak.
Clever, charming, and slightly superficial, Chéri is the kind of pert period piece that gets by on a great deal of creative goodwill. For all its narrative flaws - and there are many - we still admire Frears’ delicate direction, the pitch-perfect performances of Pfeiffer, Friend, and Bates, and the consistently catty dialogue from screenwriter Christopher Hampton. This is a movie filled with brilliant putdowns, cutting asides, bubbly bon mots, and enough backhanded compliments to make a contemporary coffee klatch jealous. In the name of gossip and glorified one-upmanship, our haughty heroines use words like weapons, hoping to inflict a little damage during their breakneck back and forth. Pfeiffer and Bates excel in these moments, leaving a memorable impression about the rivalries and responsibilities of being the former toast of the upper crust sex trade.
Where Chéri stumbles a bit, however, is in the relationship between the title character and Léa. We can see the attraction on both sides - Pfeiffer looks stunning, even in her ‘aged’ demeanor, while Friend is all smooth muscled sensuality. The narration keeps us abreast of their developing love, even referencing their occasional spats as nothing more than the arguments experienced by any ‘married’ couple. But they don’t have the same level of discourse as they do with others around them. Hampton’s words let these characters down time and time again. Maybe we are to assume that neither Léa nor Chéri is capable of being truly open and honest. Perhaps it’s simply the way things were in turn of the century society. Gender and power certainly come into play. Yet for all the sensationally snide and humorous quips traded, Chéri can’t work up a decent romantic exchange.
Of course, with Frears fabulous work behind the lens, we tend to forgive such flaws. Chéri is a sensational movie to look at, a lush and opulent work that doesn’t go overboard on the gaudiness or glitz of the era. Instead, the director lets nature do most of the work, gorgeous garden settings and sky blue oceans reminding us of how painfully beautiful the world can be. Even in the baroque homes and hideaways owned by our hookers, Frears is never indulgent. We recognize that these women have means and money. But they also have the sense to realize where it came from, how hard it is to keep, and how to manage it practically while living the good life. All of this is reflected in Frears’ approach. While not necessarily realistic, it does tend to tone down the more arch elements of Colette’s canvas.
But it’s the emotional beats that are supposed to stir us, the raw lust between Léa and Chéri, the sickening realization that age is slowing destroying their special bond. Indeed, Pfeiffer is excellent in those moments when every little wrinkle, every mention of the past, becomes a telling thorn in her side. Similarly, Friend must “grow up” and take on the responsibilities of a gentlemen, even if his status came from less noble origins. But he’s just not believable, not in any rational, understandable way. Instead, Chéri often comes across as whiny, brattish, and too high maintenance to be worth the carnal benefits. We never see a real sense of reciprocity. He’s all puppy dog longing. She’s watching her last chance at youth slowly slip away. One half of the movie is very powerful and prescient. The other gets lost and then limps along.
Still, there’s enough here to warrant attention, especially for those who remember the last time Frears, Pfeiffer, and Hampton collaborated (1988’s Oscar fave Dangerous Liaisons). Chéri may not contain the same authority and intensity as that previous powerhouse, but it’s clear that when these artists get together, something special usually happens. While the recently released DVD highlights how happy everyone is to be working together again, what’s clear is that this latest result pales in comparison. You’ll laugh at this look at faded beauty. You’ll also feel bad for the women who’ve worked exceptionally hard to find a way to live beyond the prying eyes of their snooty, snobby peers. But when the core conflict arises, when we are asked to sympathize with Chéri’s plight and his love for Léa, something goes missing. For the most part, this movie is marvelous. It’s the empty bits that prove the most problematic.