In a scene in Stephen Frears’ Chéri, an aging courtesan named Lea, nude but for a sheet, is lying next to her lover. “You are so beautiful,” he murmurs. Given that Fred, whose nickname is Chéri, is 30 years her junior and has been sponging off her for six years, the compliment could be construed as part of his job description. But Lea is played by Michelle Pfeiffer, so the young man isn’t sucking up he’s just stating the obvious.
Lea stretches under Chéri’s appreciative hands. “A good body lasts a long time,” she replies, her tone purring, teasing, but also factual. “Everybody knows that.”
The movie, an adaptation of two 1920s novels by Colette, is superficially a slight affair, a Belle Epoque costume drama capable of putting an action fan to sleep in 10 minutes . Chéri and Lea are star- or rather age-crossed lovers, yet even the most romantic-minded moviegoer will likely struggle with them as exemplars of true love. He’s a shallow fop, she’s a jaded businesswoman. There’s more hauteur than heat in the way they interact, and the tenor of Frears’ film and Christopher Hampton’s script tends to the dispassionate, much like Colette’s writing. Emotionally speaking, the pacing is languorous; almost all of the film’s impact is delivered in its last minutes, when you’ve almost given up on it. Twenty-one years ago, Frears, Hampton and Pfeiffer got together for another bedroom drama set in France. Dangerous Liaisons raised the former Grease 2 star from the ranks of the extremely pretty people who make movies into the category of highly respectable Oscar-nominated actress. It was a smart career move for a 30-year-old woman. Chéri is the smart move of a 51-year-old actress, and that is a radically different thing.
It is a bookend to the story of a great beauty, the kind that, along with an irresistible purity, entranced an incorrigible seducer named Valmont two decades ago, as well as a moviegoing public and now only now, barely now threatens to fade. As Lea points out, a good body does last a long time. So can a good face. But the undercurrent of what she’s saying is that nothing lasts forever. She first gets involved with the 19-year-old Chéri, the indolent son of another highly successful retired courtesan because she enjoys his youth and beauty . She tells her masseuse that she can’t complain about Chéri’s character, because she’s not sure he has one. Nonetheless, they end up in a sort of grudging kind of love.
Lea cups a rose at one point in the story, bends to it and watches it blow away in her hands. That might not be the most subtle scene Frears has ever shot, but Pfeiffer’s expression, wry, exasperated, sad, is the payoff. Lea is tragically self-aware: while enjoying afternoon tea with former colleagues, which tends to be an amusing, banter-filled affair, she shudders with revulsion at the sight of a portly woman of about her own age although less well preserved clutching what looks to be a teenager to her décolletage.
In theory, Chéri might be considered part of the tedious cougar trend we keep hearing about, although it is more of a refutation, an invitation to cool our jets and act our age. The movie speaks to issues of traditional desirability and dignity, specifically to the point in a woman’s life when she either makes decisions about how well those two qualities can exist together or has them made for her. If there is an art-house programmer out there who’s looking for a double feature, book Woody Allen’s latest Whatever Works, in which Larry David hooks up with a 19-year-old girl right before Chéri and leave the theater open afterward for a debate on men, women and aging. Sparks should fly.
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