CHERI Stephen Frears

CHERI Stephen Frears
(Directed by Stephen Frears)
More than 20 years after Dangerous Liaisions, director Stephen Frears and actress Michelle Pfeiffer reunite to adapt another French literary classic about sex and society. Chéri is inspired by two novels written by renowned author Colette that chronicle a callow young man born into the world of courtesans in early 20th century France.

Pfeiffer plays Lea, an aging courtesan who has a passionate six-year affair with Chéri (Rupert Friend), the callow 19-year-old offspring of Lea's rival, Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates). Lea becomes Chéri's sugar mama for all those years, teaching the lad love and lust until the manipulative Peloux suddenly arranges a marriage to virginal 18-year-old Edmee (Felicity Jones). Problem is, Lea and Chéri continue to pine for one another even as they find new partners. Unable to forget Lea, Chéri drowns himself in drugs, sex and decadence before crawling back to her.

It isn't easy to like Chéri. He's a shallow, selfish playboy pampered by his mother and Lea. However, what overcomes this obstacle is the chemistry between Pfeiffer and Friend. They smoulder on screen, and their October-May romance is entirely believable. In fact, the middle part of the film sags a bit when Pfeiffer and Friend are apart. While the story is ostensibly about Chéri, the film truly belongs to Pfeiffer's Lea who loves the younger Chéri but is wise enough to realize that their age difference will become a real barrier.

Beautiful and graceful at 51, Pfeiffer carries Chéri by displaying a wide range of emotions, leaping from flirtatious to melancholic sometimes within the same scene. Her jousting with Kathy Bates is another one of the film's strengths, allowing us to peek into the world of French courtesans where rivalries rule. As always, Bates delivers another sharp performance. (Sharp-eyed viewers will recognize a cameo by Anita Pallenberg, Keith Richard's ex, looking haggard and harrowing.)

The production values are high. The sets and costumes evoke the divine decadence of 1920s Paris, while the score by Alexandre Despat (The Queen) strikes the correct balance between romance and sorrow without resorting to melodrama. Chéri is bittersweet romance worth seeing. (Miramax)