Chéri is a reunion of three of the principals from the Oscar-winning 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons: director Stephen Frears, screenwriter Christopher Hampton, and actress Michelle Pfeiffer. Set in the same part of the world but in the early 20th century, long after the fall of the aristocracy, Chéri is a kind of low-stakes, non-offensive version of its forbear. Fairly Safe Liaison-like Relationships would be more like it.
If Chéri were a cop movie, the premise would be the detective sergeant whose life is endangered a week before getting his gold watch. In Chéri, based on a pair of novels by Colette, Lea de Lonval (Pfeiffer) is an aging whore. (Why beat about the bush?) Coming off another successful affair, where a rich paramour kept her flush for a few more years, Lea is enjoying having her bed to herself. Lea's future is secure since she's become independently wealthy after a career as a very prosperous prostitute, and she's starting to think about a life in relaxed retirement. That is, until her plans are upset when she falls for Chéri (Rupert Friend), the teenage son of a fellow prosti, Madame Peloux (native Memphian Kathy Bates). Lea asks her aide, "Beautiful handles, don't you think, for such an old vase?" Lea is a great role for the actress who, at 51, isn't my older brother's version of Michelle Pfeiffer.
Cinematographer Darius Khondji finds all the right wrinkles on Pfeiffer's face; she has some years on her, but it's no stretch to picture her as the hottest commodity in the illicit Parisian nightlife. I can remember Ladyhawke, after all.
Friend is spot-on as the title character. He's sexy and beautiful to the point of boredom in one fell swoon, and his and Lea's affair is one of conscientious debauchery. They both know the clock's ticking on their relationship, and neither seems able to commit to it in word, though the card early on in the film saying they're still together, "Six years later," indicates the level of their interest.
Bates steals the show as the pragmatic but fiery retired courtesan Peloux, who has spent enough years alone in her lavish home to know she wants grandchildren. Bates brings a mildly catty tone to the picture as counterpoint to her shiftless son-in-love.
Shot on location in Biarritz, Paris, and Cologne, and with music by Alexandre Desplat, costume design by Consolata Boyle, art direction by Denis Schnegg, and the work of Frears, Hampton, Khondji, and the cast, Chéri attains an elegant whole. It's an effective tryst between love and cynicism, the tang of Pommery exciting the taste buds, until the dramatic dénouement and powerful last shot, when Chéri becomes something more.