People Are Shallow, Observations Are Deep in Cheri
- Friday, July 10, 2009
DVD Release Date: October 20, 2009
Theatrical Release Date: July 10, 2009 (wide)
Rating: R (for some sexual content, brief nudity and brief drug use)
Genre: Period Comedy-Drama
Run Time: 86 min.
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathy Bates, Rupert Friend, Felicity Jones, Iben Hjejle
Chéri is a period-piece about shallow, immoral and deceptive people, yet its ultimate observations are deep, its resolution moral, and its strength is in how deceptively it reaches those conclusions.
Based on the novel by famed, early twentieth-century French novelist Collette (author of Gigi, which spawned the Lerner & Lowe musical), Chéri is a gender-reversed May/December ribald romance set in 1920s Paris between aging courtesan—i.e. high-end prostitute—Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfieffer) and Chéri (Rupert Friend), the son of Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates), Lea's closest professional acquaintance and biggest rival.
Just in his twenties, Chéri is a spoiled, carnal young man who wants for nothing, and Lea is a cultured, seasoned call girl broaching fifty. Intent to fulfill the dreams of a childhood crush, Chéri employs a teasing arrogance to seduce Lea. A seductress herself by trade, Lea stealthily controls the playful flirtation before finally giving in. Their brief wish fulfillment evolves into a casual affair that eventually leads to something more, reaping serious consequences never remotely considered in the frivolity of sexual excess.
It's compelling to see where the story goes. Initially, it seems the narrative will simply follow two longtime competitors who use a young man as pawn in their catty feud, but that arc dissipates by the end of the first act. The film shifts gears a bit unexpectedly, adding more complication to a story that at first blush appears to be nothing more than a comic farce. The biting sophistication remains, but it turns from quick-witted to sharp-tongued.
It turns because Chéri is about the illusory appeal of a fantasy world. At some point, the fantasy begins to fall apart despite the concerted (and occasionally successful) efforts to maintain it. Realities (such as age, which is a big factor here) force their way into fanciful cultural bubbles the privileged create for themselves. Without a firm foundation of integrity, impulsive decisions are made, lust is confused for love, and betrayal results as self-interest takes precedence over sacrifice.
Lea and Chéri serve as a perfect relationship to examine these dynamics as nothing about them individually suggests they should be together. Their only bonds are the lusts of their flesh and the ill-gotten gains of a sinful profession. There is no purpose or meaning, only feeling. Chéri's fault is that he has no personal character, Lea's is the self-deception that it doesn't matter, and jointly they mistake happiness for love. When happiness wanes for someone who lacks character, then so does commitment.
Given her infrequent on-screen appearances, it's easy to forget that Michelle Pfeiffer is one of our best actresses—but she is, and the nuanced complexity she brings to Lea is one of the year's best performances. She plays the duality of poise and insecurity with natural ease, belying her anxieties only to us (the audience) even as she puts on a refined front. We can't root for Lea by any stretch, but Pfeiffer humanizes her. As she only says what's expected of her, we see that she is stirred by deeper emotions, unfulfilled. It's hard not to empathize with her too-late realization that love, no matter how deeply felt, is not truly love if only based in bliss; it also requires the conviction to make each other not just happy, but better.
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