By Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald
A vital sense of authenticity usually courses through the films of Stephen Frears, whether he’s re-creating modern-day Buckingham Palace (The Queen), war-time London (Mrs. Henderson Presents), a chaotic Irish household (The Snapper) or a Chicago record shop (High Fidelity).
Chéri, Frears’ beautiful new film, boasts the accustomed exquisite attention to detail, with richly textured sets and costumes. Set in pre-World War I France and based on two Colette novels, it nonetheless fails miserably in one vital aspect: the casting of Michelle Pfeiffer as Léa, an aging Parisian courtesan who falls in love with a former rival’s son (Rupert Friend).
Pfeiffer is still pretty and delicate, and, yes, she made a mark years ago in Frears’ period Dangerous Liaisons (thanks to ferocious performances by John Malkovich and Glenn Close), but she is not even remotely French, and she looks too modern for the setting. The story about courtesans and the rules and regulations of life in their restricted yet glamorous world never quite flows believably around her stiff American accent.
Léa has known Chéri, as she calls him, since he was a boy, and she was engaged in a war for the attentions of wealthy men with his mother (Kathy Bates, who seems destined to lose that battle). At 19, drunken, dissolute and as bad-tempered as any petulant teenager, Chéri tempts Léa, and she whisks him off to her country house, where they live for six blissful years, until Chéri’s meddling maman arranges a marriage for him.
Everybody goes gamely along with the plan, but Chéri can’t stop thinking about Léa, who pines grievously even as she takes consolation in the arms of another.
All this longing is well and good if you actually believe there’s some English Patient-type emotion buried beneath all the masks. But Chéri never fulfills its emotional promise. Chéri is far too much of a spoiled brat to intrigue a worldly woman like Léa, and he never seems capable of sustaining a feeling longer than the few minutes it takes him to smoke a pipe stuffed with opium. The often tone-deaf script, by longtime Frears collaborator Christopher Hampton, doesn’t do the character any favors: When Chéri whines, ”Why are you giving me such a hard time?” he could be complaining about his mom’s idea to impose a curfew or take away his computer privileges. The film’s ironic narrator tells us, ”He required nothing of her,” by way of explaining Léa’s infatuation. But this film requires too much of us ever to come close to inflaming our hearts.
Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathy Bates, Rupert Friend.
Director: Stephen Frears.
Screenwriter: Christopher Hampton. Based on novels by Colette.
Producers: Andras Hamori, Ben Kenwright, Thom Mount, Tracey Seaward.
A Miramax release. Running time: 100 minutes. Some sexual content, brief drug use. In Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Broward: Sunrise; in Palm Beach: Shadowood.