Stephen Frears’s version of Colette’s novel Chéri, adapted by Christopher Hampton, is ostensibly an examination of an aging Michelle Pfeiffer. A retired, past-her-prime courtesan in belle epoque Paris, Pfeiffer’s Lea de Lonval still wears her beauty well, yet the lines on her washed-out visage are difficult to ignore. There’s no doubt that Pfeiffer is brilliantly cast as this worn-down yet still vital woman, as her face, despite some unignorable tightness about the cheekbones, is beginning to show its age; her impeccable, carved beauty remains, yet in a stricter, more severe, perhaps even more divine tone. In Chéri, Pfeiffer, as always, makes for a welcome camera subject, though in a perhaps unavoidable turn of events, the film lavishes most of its attention on rigorous youth, i.e. the face and body of her young lover. As Chéri, the spoiled dandy son of her nasty rival ex-courtesan Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates, doing her fussbudget routine from “Revolutionary Road”), Rupert Friend is Pfeiffer’s perfect complement: with his aquiline nose, rosebud lips, and alabaster skin, he also has a harsh beauty, but one tied to the frivolities of youth. At first, Chéri seduces the beautiful 19-year-old lad for mere sexual gain, and clearly due to some unspoken one-upmanship with his mother, who watches her come-ons from a nearby window; but six years later, he remains her bedfellow, and, unheralded, their lust has become love.
This is basically where Chéri‘s narrative proper begins, as Lea’s taking the boy to bed mostly makes for prologue, which Frears bounds over in rather zippy fashion. If only the rest of his film could have stuck to this momentum. What follows is a rather lugubrious affair, detailing the sexual and emotional withdrawal the two experience when torn apart by social custom. The increasing darkness of Chéri only sheds light on the inappropriateness of its fleet early moments, which include a bouncy montage credit sequence describing “whores of every description,” with faux-didactic voiceover and cartoonish “period” imagery. Such frilly foolishness promises a much lighter film that what arrives and in retrospect smacks of last-minute desperation on the part of the producers or perhaps studio. Similarly, the crazily emphatic score by Alexandre Desplat throughout seems to have been amped up in order to make dramatic and palatable what might have been overly somber and motivationally subtle; rather it comes across as intrusive and often atonal.