The sexy but trifling romance Chéri really sells Michelle Pfeiffer’s beauty to the audience, and it’s sad the film feels like it has to. As Lea de Lonval, a rich, retired courtesan in early 1900s France, Pfeiffer looks gorgeous whether she’s in elaborate gowns or rumpled bed sheets. Chéri’s poster shows off her tousled hair, bare arms and back, and might as well feature a tagline like “She’s cougar-iffic!”
Chéri reunites Pfeiffer with Stephen Frears and Christopher Hampton, the director and screenwriter, respectively, of 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons, a darker tale of sex and power struggles among splendidly dressed French aristocrats. The actress, filmmaker and writer clearly want Chéri to evoke Liaisons' wit and eroticism. Ironically, Pfeiffer wasn’t nearly as sexy in her victimized role from two decades ago as she is with her confident, radiant performance here.
Adapted from two short stories by Colette, Chéri explores the leisurely lives of Lea and her former rivals, including bawdy Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates). The former courtesans don’t particularly like each other, but despite their wealth remain too scandalous to socialize with high society. Madame Peloux’s dissipated 19-year-old son, nicknamed “Chéri” (Rupert Friend) forms an unlikely attachment to Lea, although she’s known him since infancy.
Despite her jaded attitude toward love, Lea finds herself falling for the superficial young man, and they spend six apparently tranquil years together. When Madame Peloux announces that she wants grandchildren and arranges for Chéri to marry another courtesan’s naïve daughter (Felicity Jones), their love affair seems doomed. Friend’s performance establishes Chéri’s callow selfishness a little too well. He comes across as so spoiled and one-dimensional that he seems unworthy of Lea’s attention, let alone having the movie named after him. (Lea deserves an onscreen foil that can match her, like Liaisons’ John Malkovich.)
Only some voice-over narration at the end of the movie gives the character some complexity, which seems like a cheat. For most of the film, the brassy asides, delivered by Frears himself, sound deliberately like “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’” Robin Leach. It sets a light-hearted tone and suits our voyeuristic interest in the setting, but also trivializes the story. Nevertheless, Pfeiffer captures both the humor and the pathos in the role and nearly carries the film on her own. With the right promotion, Chéri could secure Pfeiffer a Best Actress Oscar nomination, despite treating a 51-year-old star’s beauty like a novelty.