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.

Rupert Friend inhabits Chéri's egocentric skin with a superior air that is at times playful and other times cruel.  Sarcasm is the only language he knows, whether intending to flirt or hurt.  It's the wall he constantly retreats behind.  Kathy Bates gives a delicious turn as Chéri's mother and Lea's adversary, both in passive-aggressive theatrical style.  She chews the scenery, but appropriately so.

Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Dangerous Liaisons) is brilliantly coy as he presents temptation in lighthearted fashion, but his avoidance of moralizing for much of the film is actually a means to an end.  The allure of lust and passion is honest, and excitement goes part-and-parcel with forbidden fruit. Yes, Frears presents the sexuality in appealing fashion; yes, the complications are played more as romantic tragedy than a just comeuppance. 

But by making us emotionally complicit in the attraction and sympathetic to Lea's heartbreak, Frears rightly forces us to implicate ourselves in its cost.  It would be far too easy to judge these characters from the outset; not doing so helps to cogently remind us all that we are as susceptible to temptation as anyone, and we are equally bound to its effects.

It's ironic, but we feel the weight of immorality only after denying its existence for too long.  Yes, deep down, we know what we're doing is wrong, but we're too caught up in the thrill to acknowledge what our conscience gently counsels.  That's the tone Frears captures here.  When the characters indulge, the film indulges along with them.  When they despair, the film despairs with them.  Yet where many films romanticize the reckoning, Chéri offers no grace. 

Its morality only emerges at the very end in one quiet gut punch of a final moment.  We feel it—not because we've been preached to all along, but because it's the only direct moral swing the film takes, and it's timed perfectly.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:  Drinking, smoking.  Brief cocaine use.
  • Language/Profanity:  No blatant contemporary profanity, but suggestive dialogue and flirtations do enter conversation.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  A few old pictures/drawings of female nudity seen in the film's opening, but fairly stilted in the style of the time.  Sex scenes occasionally occur throughout.  Initially they are brief, but each subsequent one is a bit more graphic than the last, both in duration as well as content.  No frontal nudity is seen, but bare backsides are exposed.  People lie together naked, and the actions in a few scenes are explicit in motion and expression even if not visually pornographic.
  • Violence/Other:  An act of brutal violence is referenced near the end, but not seen. 

 
Jeffrey Huston is a film director, writer and producer at Steelehouse Productions in Tulsa, Okla.  He is also cohost of "Steelehouse Podcast," along with Steelehouse Executive Creative Mark Steele, where each week they discuss God in pop culture. 

To listen to the weekly podcast, please visit www.steelehouse.com or click here.  You can also subscribe to "Steelehouse Podcast" through iTunes.