Chéri opens Wednesday throughout the Triangle
In art as in life, a woman of a certain age, even a very beautiful one, begins to fade into invisibility. In Chéri, Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, The Queen) and his Dangerous Liaisons scenarist, playwright Christopher Hampton, adapt a 1920 Colette novel about a grande horizontale, or courtesan, who has enjoyed the most rarified levels of society in belle epoque Paris. Now well into middle age, she allows herself a sunset dalliance, the glow of which melts unexpectedly into a deep amour.
Even if the film is named for a man, it's entirely from a woman's point of view. That woman is Léa (the lovely 51-year-old Michelle Pfeiffer), who one day joins a former rival, Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates) for lunch. Madame Peloux's son, nicknamed Chéri (Rupert Friend), is a 19-year-old libertine with the delicate face of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Intentionally, he's a cipher, which is only reasonable—nobody inquires into Megan Fox's interior life in Transformers, and Chéri, too, is a sexy tabula rasa.
Léa has known him since he was a baby, but the bad boy seduces her—apparently, sleeping with one of his mother's friends is a vice he hasn't yet tasted. But Léa's generous nature is a refreshing change from the narcissism in which he's been immersed all his life. Léa indulges herself because the frankness of the relationship pleases her—after a lifetime of hearing men pour out their hearts to her, she's grateful he doesn't want to talk about himself. Still, the emotions are complicated. Chéri is both the young lover she never had when she was young and a surrogate son. He's also likely to be her last-chance affair before she retires.
The delectable art nouveau costumes and production design add immeasurably to the film's pleasures. Léa first appears in a dress that no doubt intentionally evokes Audrey Hepburn's white lace Ascot gown in My Fair Lady. That film and Vincente Minnelli's Gigi were both designed by Cecil Beaton, a prolific chronicler of the era, and his book The Glass of Fashion, which celebrates the lives of many belle epoque courtesans, clearly served as valuable source material for the film's designer, Alan McDonald, and costume designer, Consolata Boyle.
Many films portray prostitution as kooky and fun (speaking of Audrey Hepburn, don't get me started on Breakfast at Tiffany's), but here the ladies are treated with delicacy and dignity as they methodically trade their fleeting beauty for jewels, chateaux and stock portfolios. Chéri is about decadent passions, but also life's fragility—it's never too late to be blindsided by love.