Let’s not bury the lead here: the reason to see Chéri is the reunion of three key players from the scintillating costume drama Dangerous Liaisons: actor Michelle Pfeiffer, director Stephen Frears, and Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton. An adaptation of two Colette novels (Chéri and La fin de Chéri), Chéri doesn’t so much get anything wrong; it just fails to go oh so right.
What’s clear is that Chéri is the kind of film you’d call “well-appointed”: as prettily photographed by Darius Khondji (Evita), scored with alternating friskiness and grandeur by Alexandre Desplat, decorated by production designer Alan MacDonald and art director Denis Schnegg, and costumed by Consolata Boyle, this Belle Epoque melodrama is “très belle,” indeed. Lush gardens set the stage for dialogue that’s likewise stylized, as retired courtesan Léa de Lonval (Pfeiffer) takes a nineteen-year-old lover, flattering him that he has an eye shaped like a sole. The “rich but neglected” young man, nicknamed “Chéri” (Rupert Friend of 2005’s Pride and Prejudice), shares Léa’s experience in the world of high-class prostitution, and is considering retirement for himself; call them professional layabouts.
Audiences may have some difficulty identifying with or warming to these idle rich, but taken as a period piece, Chéri makes sense. The complications set in, in earnest, after six years of blissful cohabitation, when Chéri’s mother Madame Peloux--played with a wobbly accent but invigorating comic airs by Kathy Bates--decides that only grandchildren can fulfill her twilight years (like Léa, Peloux is a former prostitute and dancer, “before she learned that art lovers are a more reliable source of income than art”). Thus Léa must gracefully step aside to allow Chéri to marry properly, a prospect that holds no interest for him. Speaking of both of them, Lea remarks, "Thirty years of easy living does make you very vulnerable."
Sharp tongued and sexually compatible, the tender lovers are meant for each other, except for the cruel twist of fate that is their age difference. Their private, mutual understanding sets them apart from the world, but congeals into awkwardly protective gestures and bitter resentments when they’re wedged apart. Implied in Hampton’s typically urbane script is the Oedipal complication to their love, the sense that for all that’s selfishly right in their sexual pairing, there’s something fundamentally wrong as well (speaking of urbane, Frears himself supplies the dry-witted narration). Léa says of her lover, "I can't criticize his character, mostly because he doesn't seem to have one," but Friend does subtle work in embodying Chéri's callowness and sense of frustrated potential (when his mother imposes marriage, Léa tells him, "From now on, what you want has very little to do with anything").
As one might expect from the star casting, the film shows more interest in Léa’s character than the titular one. Pfeiffer effectively conveys how Léa is troubled by the knowledge that her still-striking beauty grows steadily further and further past its prime (as for Chéri's ironically nineteen-year-old virgin bride--played by Felicity Jones--the film shows even less interest). At first, Pfeiffer drolly drawls bon mots, but she winds up speaking greater volumes in wordless contemplation, particularly in the post-climactic close-up that caps the film. To put it simply, this take on Chéri would be a devastating short film, but at 100 minutes, it becomes repetitive and a bit dull as the characters impotently wallow, fret and argue a fairly obvious situation.