Stephen Frears’ Chéri—from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton (Carrington) based on two Colette novels, Chéri and The Last of Chéri—is intended to be the film that puts Michelle Pfeiffer back in the star column. I’m really doubtful that it will do much to revive Pfeiffer’s career. The material—a pre-WWI romance about the end of the belle epoque—is for specialized tastes, as is the story of a woman “of a certain age” and a very young man. It played well to a group of critics last week, but most of us are in that “certain age” category, and more apt to be in sympathy with a film like this and understand a relationship like that. How it will play to a broader audience remains to be seen, but that has no bearing on the actual quality of the film, which is quite remarkable.
The story in itself is fairly simple. Aging courtesan Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates) has a son, Chéri (Rupert Friend, The Libertine), who is the walking—or more appropriately, lounging—embodiment of ennui. In an effort to make something out of him, she gives him over to her colleague, the not-quite-as-aging Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer). It’s an unspecific arrangement—one that Lea doesn’t especially want, though she quickly finds herself fascinated by her nearly lethargic charge (“I can’t criticize his character, because he doesn’t seem to have one”). Naturally, she does the one thing that courtesans “can’t” do: She falls in love with Chéri.
The relationship lasts six years, at which point Charlotte arranges a desirable marriage for him to Edmée (Felicity Jones, Brideshead Revisited), the daughter of another courtesan. Chéri seems largely ambivalent about the arrangement (as he does to just about everything), while Lea puts on a brave face, having always known that such a day would come. But neither is happy—nor is Edmée. What follows—including a hard lesson learned too late—makes up the bulk of the film. How one responds to what happens will depend almost entirely on understanding that Chéri is a romantic satire about the passing of an era—both a woman’s and the belle epoque itself—that is swathed in a deeply sad regret.
The film is not exactly a romantic comedy with a tragic ending (though that might partially describe it), nor is it tear-jerking soap. The final sense is of something beautiful that has been lost, but the pervasive sadness stems less from the loss itself than from the idea that the loss is grounded in the combination of an interrupted timeline that can’t be recaptured, and realizing the beauty of it all too late. It’s a loss that goes beyond tears—a loss that is bigger than the characters it directly affects, a loss that is finally summed up in one heart-wrenchingly matter-of-fact sentence at the very end of the film.
To this end, Frears and cinematographer Darius Khondji (My Blueberry Nights) have crafted an almost suffocatingly gorgeous film. There’s not a single perfunctory composition or camera move, and the recurring image of Lea walking into the frame and another of Chéri lounging against a conservatory door gain in effortless beauty upon repetition. The design, the look, the feel of the film is fully as important as anything that happens—and sometimes more so, since a number of the film’s dramatic high points are merely told to us through Frears’ (uncredited) narration. It’s a bold approach—one that has alienated quite a few critics—but it’s one that’s perfectly in keeping with a story that’s as fragile as petals dropping from a flower. Rated R for some sexual content and brief drug use.