When I first heard that Michelle Pfeiffer was reteaming with Stephen Frears, her Dangerous Liaisons director, to make Chéri, I breathed a sigh of relief. Despite her riveting presence, Pfeiffer is perhaps the most curiously underused actress of her generation; she’s performed so sporadically in recent years that her 2007 supporting roles in Hairspray and Stardust were considered a comeback. Chéri provides a fuller platform for her gifts, returning Pfeiffer and Frears to Liaisons territory by charting the escalating romantic gamesmanship between two mismatched French lovers. But Frears, who’s tackled everything from High Fidelity to The Grifters with gusto, somehow misses the mark with Chéri, an adaptation of two Belle Époque-set novels by Colette. Typically skilled at mixing wit with pathos, Frears finally makes Chéri neither as charming nor as sad as it should be.
At the film’s center is an intriguingly offbeat romance with twisted origins. The title refers not to Léa de Lonval, Pfeiffer’s wealthy courtesan, but to her decades-younger lover, Rupert Friend’s fey Fred. The two come together when Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates), a fellow courtesan and Fred’s mother, schemes to get her layabout son off her hands by passing him on to Léa; Léa, who knows she’s being manipulated, nonetheless spirits Fred to her lavish Normandy home for what she intends to be a brief dalliance. She initially finds Fred, or Chéri, as she calls him, a baffling blank, but the film’s voiceover narration (supplied by Frears himself) soon informs us that the couple has passed six years in each other’s company. Anxious by now for a grandchild, Madame Peloux contrives to manipulate the pair once again by marrying Fred off to the callow daughter of another courtesan. Léa and Fred shrug off the end of their frothy association (“Do you think you’re the first young man I’ve said goodbye to?” Léa teases him), but after parting, both quickly realize the strength of their attachment.
The separation that follows is Chéri’s most compelling passage, as Léa and Fred struggle to make sense of their lives without each other. But by dramatizing only the beginning and the end of the central romance, the filmmakers give us no real feel for the texture of the relationship that purportedly haunts both lovers so persistently. Pfeiffer and Friend are left largely to their own talents to convince us of their characters’ angst. Friend manages Fred especially deftly; with his hollowed-out cheekbones and ornate outfits (drawing to mind a gaunt Chuck Bass), the actor’s sickly intensity powers the movie.
Pfeiffer would seem to have the easier task, as her character grapples with both the breakup and her fading prospects as an aging courtesan. But the attempt to tack larger themes onto Léa’s dilemma feels forced. She tells Chéri sadly that he sees her as an old woman, but Léa’s charisma so outstrips Fred’s young wife’s that we can’t quite buy this. A scene in which Léa examines herself in a mirror, scrutinizing her wrinkles, doesn’t land, in large part because the 50-year-old Pfeiffer still looks preternaturally ravishing (she’s somehow sidestepped acquiring the facial immobility of peers like Jessica Lange, formerly slated to play Léa). And, once again, the filmmakers sin by omission, leaving out any scenes that show Léa struggling to find new companions. When she laments, “The bedroom has always been my place of business, but now all the customers have gone,” we’re left to take it on faith.
Frears himself seems to know that something is off here, this being the only film of his in which he papers over storytelling gaps with his own narration. With its lush period décor, Chéri at least makes for delectable eye candy. But everyone involved had surely sought something more. For all the nuance the filmmakers bring to the backdrop, they fail to bring Léa and Chéri – the foreground – to life.