Chéri / Adapted with thematic faithfulness from Colette’s great short novels Chéri (l920) and The Last of Chéri (l926), this love story set in the dying years of France’s magnificent courtesan culture, this film, directed by the great Stephen Frears and written by Christopher Hampton, both of l988’s Dangerous Liaisons, is flawed but intriguing, with a wonderful performance by Michelle Pfeiffer (though Colette purists might blanch a little). There is one major problem here, which is resolved, and one major dilemma–and therefore unsolvable.
Here, wealthy beautiful Lea (Pfeiffer), a successful courtesan schooled in the sexual and social arts, is in her late 40s, almost ready to retire, beginning to age perceptibly, and steeling herself for the comedy of aged courtesans cajoling each other wittily, many of whom are quite well set-up financially, through years of choosing upper-class and titled clientele. One of her courtesan friends (Kathy Bates, outdoing herself) contrives to put Lea in close social proximity to Bates’s son, who is a vain l9, hoping sparks will fly. They do. So 49-year-old Lea takes l9-year-old Fred (hereafter known as Chéri) as a lover. And, slowly, they fall in love.
So here they are: experienced, moneyed Lea and sulky narcissistic, emotionally immature Chéri, a little silly and still in his formative years–with scarcely any character at all. Here, the story deepens–and the movie follows bravely, if imperfectly–into the psychology of such a relationship, which, in this case, lasts for six years…and tragically, elliptically beyond. Colette herself has discussed this dynamic: in such a relationship, she allegedly has written, the woman risks less than the boy-man, who may have his character formation stunted, or arrested, so that ever in the future he will always be haunted by this relationship–none after will measure up.
The second half of this film, superior to the first, explores this theme fully–and Pfeiffer shifts into her best screen performance to date.
The problem (which Pfeiffer overcomes) is that Lea is a plush, well-rounded, voluptuous woman, as was the Courtesan style of the Belle Epoque, and Pfeiffer is angular, elegant and far too thin. But she makes us forget that, if we ever knew it. The dilemma, which suggests perhaps that this story is better in print than in film, is that Chéri might perhaps be visualized in the mind, not concretized on the screen. Perhaps readers must make Chéri their own, in terms of image, because when we first meet him (in the movie) he is annoying and not entirely likeable. Friend, whose pallor and demeanor can be off-putting, is Chéri only in bed, where he seems powerful and increasingly skilled. Then, after six years, Chéri’s mother arranges for him to marry the inexperienced daughter of another courtesan, wealthier than Lea. But Lea and Chéri discover that hey do love each other. Chéri goes away on his honeymoon, and Lea goes for an extended stay in the South of France, where she tries to return to her courtesan arts.
What happens next is for you to discover if you choose to see, in a movie so far from our own experience (probably) that it qualifies as superior escapism. See it.