Charlotte (Kathy Bates) believes her 19-year-old son Chéri (Rupert Friend) is in need of schooling. As for herself, she feels in need of respite. He’s a beautiful boy and knows it, having pursued “several years of calculated debauchery.” Now his mother is feeling fretful over his excesses, and wants to rein him in, or at the very least turn his skills to her own profit. For help in this department, she turns to Léa (Michelle Pfeiffer), a prostitute of prodigious reputation. Charlotte, also a successful whore in her day, asks her friend to take the boy under her wing, as it were, to educate him in social and sexual mores. The boy, Charlotte smiles wanly, “will be the death of me. I used to think of myself as such a happy mother.”
So begins Chéri‘s saga of bad parenting. The premise — drawn from Collette’s novel and reassembled by director Stephen Frears and writer Christopher Hampton, who worked with Pfeiffer on 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons — ostensibly has to do with designs and rituals of love. Both Charlotte and Léa understand such activity in strictly material terms. Charlotte’s concerns are not so much that her son is behaving poorly, only that he affecting her own not-so-good name, and more to the point, is not acting in her (or his) best financial interests. In this focus, the movie appears to take up the novel’s basic interest in the complexities of the Belle Époque, namely, the ways its crass and gorgeous surface masks corruption and misery and utter selfishness.
You might think an examination of the costs and benefits of consumption would be timeless. But this movie is almost perversely dated. First, there’s the absurd distinction drawn between Charlotte’s outspoken boorishness and Léa’s evolving sense of romance. Ostensibly, the women once shared a healthy disdain for such sentiment, having spent so many years selling the illusion. Now, however, as Léa contemplates retirement (“Is there anything more wonderful than a bed to oneself?” she murmurs to her maid), she is also succumbing to a decidedly mundane desire for stability. That she comes to imagine she will find this in a standard heterosexual coupling is both unconvincing and trite.
Chéri’s refusal to participate in such mythologizing until now has made her famous, not to mention wealthy and envied. The film hints that Charlotte might have anticipated this outcome, which makes her decision to give (or more precisely, lend) her son to her former rival seem an especially dark and devious sort of revenge. It’s like she’s raised her child to be so simultaneously callous and self-consciously lovely to look at that he will surely break Léa’s heart. The cruelty this possibility supposes for Charlotte is striking. The mushy-headedness it requires of Léa, however, is only annoying.
Léa does agree to take Chéri in, of course, and in the blink of a title card, they spend six years together — until he arrives at a marriageable age, whereupon his mother arranges a more appropriately aged match. The change might be a surprise to the lovers, pictured repeatedly in filtered light bedroom scenes, their laughter and lithe bodies indicating their sensual delights. “Both of them were duly aware,” intones the unnecessary narrator (who tends to describe what you’re looking at, via precise prose drawn from the book), “that this couldn’t go on forever.”
And so, following Chéri’s training in dissipation and seduction (their own sorts of discipline, after all), he is ready to be sold off. Léa’s role as another sort of “mother” here becomes all too plain as well, as Chéri is only too ready to push on from his old lover, who is destined, for all her skills, to sag. That the split also involves heartbreaks and recriminations and some very nasty jabbing by Charlotte is inevitable. Somewhat less essential though sadly predictable is Léa’s abrupt turn to desolation.
This turn is rendered in a series of scenes in which Charlotte pokes at Léa on social occasions. As groups of their friends gather — creaky, frighteningly made-up, jewel-encrusted caricatures who play cards and snipe at regular people ‘s ignorance — Charlotte again and again raises the specter of her now wonderful son, gallivanting on his honeymoon, or doting on his pretty young thing of a wife, Edmee (Felicity Jones). Even as the film provides prolonged gazes on Léa’s watery eyes and valiant efforts to be stoic (gazes that feel more exploitative than sympathetic), it also cuts occasionally to the self-absorbed Chéri, displeased with Edmee, thinking he’s erred in following Charlotte’s practical edicts, yearning, however half-heartedly, to return to the arms of his more experienced beloved.
That’s not to say the movie ever pretends to care about Chéri — he is the occasion for Léa’s own self-contemplation and grief, as she can then embody the tragedies of her era. “You’ll always be there,” he tells Léa before the wedding, “In case I need anything.” Though she admonished Chéri that he must now attend to his wife’s needs and not abuse her naïve trust in him, Léa also discovers herself wanting him back, to declare their love “true.” This would make his betrayal of Edmee seem almost ethical, and because the movie treats her as furniture, the dilemma remains abstract, at least next to the supposed passion heaving in Léa’s breast. No matter her sorrow and symbolism, however, her investment in this boy remains indecipherable.