Sunday, June 28, 2009

Love Realized Too Late Doesn't Work

Set in Paris in the years before World War I, Chéri paints a picture of the romance between young Chéri (Rupert Friend) and retired courtesan Léa (Michelle Pfeiffer). Chéri’s mother (Kathy Bates), a rival of Léa, plots to separate the pair by arranging a marriage between her son and Edmée (Felicity Jones).

Lea de Lonval (Pfeiffer) is one of the wealthiest women in Paris, but probably not the happiest. Her career as a courtesan — the early 20th-century equivalent of a high-priced call girl — made love a luxury she couldn't afford. But that career is in its waning days, and Lea has regrets to go with her wrinkles. She also has longings, of which the much younger Chéri (Friend) is all too aware. The son of Lea's longtime, well-heeled rival Madame Peloux (Bates), Chéri is as carefree as Lea is worldly. The chemistry between them is palpable, and their relationship quickly evolves from one that's amenable to dining outdoors to one that requires drawn curtains.  Based on stories by Colette, Chéri reunites Pfeiffer, screenwriter Christopher Hampton and director Stephen Frears, who worked together on "Dangerous Liaisons" (1988). Frears has a feel for character-based stories, from "My Beautiful Laundrette" (1985) to "The Queen" (2006). Ultimately, Chéri is about two people and their struggle with a restrictive society. Set in a gorgeous re-creation of pre-World War I France, it concerns a beautiful young man who refuses to grow up and his much older lover, who knows she is past her prime. Chéri, whose given name is Fred, is a spoiled dandy, pampered and neglected by his mother, Charlotte, a well-to-do ex-courtesan. For six years -- at Charlotte's request -- her former competitor, Lea, has instructed Chéri in the pleasures of the flesh, preparing him for his eventual arranged marriage. The pair have been careful to keep their feelings in check, in view of their inevitable separation. It's not until Chéri marries a lovely 18-year-old that they realize they are incapable of happiness apart. She leaves town and takes a new young lover who is handsome but gauche. He finds his new bride unsatisfactory. Lea and Chéri dance a waltz of reconciliation, but their time is running out. 

Director Stephen Frears has adapted his film from two novels by the celebrated French writer Colette, who observed her characters' emotions with microscopic vividness, and he does her full justice. The look is elegant, the script urbane, the grasp of a rigid social milieu assured. He has cast the film with a sharpshooter's eye. Michelle Pfeiffer's Lea remains beautiful, certainly, but she is a fabulous bouquet that is just off its bloom. She brings a great dignity and delicacy to the role, allowing us to intuit Lea's emotions from the angle of a glance, the subtle, insinuating inflection of a word or phrase. Pfeiffer — a three-time Oscar nominee who has maintained a relatively low profile in recent years — portrays Lea as a woman with the courage to make tough choices, but not necessarily the strength to live with the consequences. It's a complex performance — intriguingly balanced between the ethereal and the earthy, and sympathetic without being maudlin. In a role that might have gone to Orlando Bloom a few years ago, Friend is at once dashing and slightly aloof — a perfect approach to a character whose attitudes were shaped by a privileged upbringing. Rupert Friend as Chéri perfectly fits Colette's description: "not strictly feminine but a trifle prettier than one could have wished." He is as spoiled as a cat in his early scenes, and when he understands too late what he has lost, his pain is nicely underplayed. Kathy Bates is sly and underhanded as Charlotte, ever on the alert to other women's aging as she holds court among her old rivals. "Isn't it lovely", she pointedly asks Lea, "how one's neck holds perfume when the skin goes slack?" Bates is excellent as the bubbly Peloux. As the characters age, the social and political conditions change, and the players do their best to adapt. Chéri, a beautiful ornament without substance, faces the hardest challenge in finding his way through a new world that values actions above feelings. Chéri may be too leisurely paced for the "Fast & Furious" and "Terminator Salvation" crowd. But if you're in the mood for a warm bath rather than a quick shower, you might find this bittersweet period piece quite moving. Chéri is a sad, intelligent film about coming of age late in life, looking in the mirror and wondering, "What happened?" The characters inhabit a world of grand hotels, opium dens, top hats and ebony carriages, but when the film is done we understand that they are no different from us. Insecurity, heartbreak and regret are timeless, and "Chéri" evokes them gorgeously. This one gets a 3 on my "Go See" scale.

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