Cinematic pleasures in the summer don’t have to involve computer-generated robots, museum exhibits or starships. The frothy confection “Cheri” provides just as great an escape — albeit one not quite so sweet as you might expect.
“Cheri” sees director Stephen Frears, screenwriter Christopher Hampton and star Michelle Pfeiffer reunite after last working together on 1998’s “Dangerous Liaisons.” Both films are literary costume dramas, but they don’t share much else in common. Miss Pfeiffer is not the victim of seduction here. People see love not as a game in “Cheri,” but rather as something to be enjoyed — until its circumstances destroy you.
Based on Colette’s novels “Cheri” and “La fin de Cheri,” the film opens with breezy narration, voiced (uncredited) by the director himself. We learn this tale is set in Paris before the Great War, and its heroine, Lea de Lonval (Miss Pfeiffer), is a 40-something courtesan nearing retirement who has managed to avoid the greatest danger of her profession — falling in love.
Its hero, Cheri (Rupert Friend), usually could be found at the “headquarters of the belle epoque,” Maxim’s, “after several years of conscientious debauchery.” The 19-year-old’s mother, the retired courtesan Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates), asks her old colleague to take Cheri under her wing; she takes him to bed.
Their relationship lasts six years, with the courtesan becoming the customer, showering gifts on the younger man. They don’t realize they’ve fallen in love until Cheri marries someone else — Madame Peloux wants grandchildren. Lea has taken good care of Cheri, keeping him from opium, cocaine and “the cheaper sort of drink.” She hasn’t turned the boy into a man, though, and the spoiled Cheri might doom all three by thinking he can have a wife and mistress — for as long as he finds his aging paramour attractive.
Every element of this film has been executed impeccably. Mr. Hampton’s screenplay is filled with clever lines, many delivered by the director himself, who puts darkness and light together with a sure hand.
Alexandre Desplat is one of the best composers working in films today, and his work here is really quite original. It fits into the period, yet almost discolike, pulsating beats at times provide a real sense of the dread lurking beneath all the loveliness — of which there’s plenty.
A costume drama must have gorgeous costumes, and Consolata Boyle delivers and then some. France and Germany don’t do too badly, either; their beautiful houses and gardens are on glorious display.
Most elegant, however, might be the film’s star. Miss Pfeiffer is very thin and beautiful; Lea might be at the end of her career, but the actress who plays her certainly is not. She’s wonderfully seductive.
Mr. Friend is best known on these shores as Keira Knightley’s boyfriend, but not for long. His delicate face, for Lea the epitome of youthful beauty, communicates the real turmoil of a Peter Pan who wants life always to remain the same.
RATING: R (some sexual content and brief drug use)
CREDITS: Directed by Stephen Frears. Written by Christopher Hampton based on the novels by Colette.
RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes
WEB SITE: cheri-movie.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS