'Cheri' Artfully Shows Risks Of Loving Wrong Person

As Lea, Pfeiffer Is The Model Of Growing Old Gracefully *** 1/2 ( 31/2 Stars)

July 01, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Cheri is a voluptuous movie about two voluptuaries who fall in love. Michelle Pfeiffer's performance as Colette's 49-year-old courtesan, Lea de Lonval, provides a rare sensual depiction of maturity and aging. When she lifts up her arms and admires "beautiful handles for an old vase," you agree about the handles, and the vase doesn't look so shabby, either. But Pfeiffer's hypnotic performance goes beyond her own eerie allure. She evokes an intense response because, as an actor, she conveys an exquisite sensibility.

In swift, feathery strokes, Pfeiffer creates a portrait of a woman whose essential honesty and taste enable her to create an elegant private pocket in a thoroughly cynical world. Lea has accumulated a fortune as a kept woman all her life; she's ready to lavish some of it on a man less than half her age.

Working on a budget probably one-tenth of a Transformers movie's, the director, Stephen Frears, brews a vision of Belle Epoque loveliness that transcends decadence. (He's helped by Christopher Hampton's debonair, faithful adaptation of Colette's novel of the same name; Hampton adds a smidgen from Colette's later The Last of Cheri.)

The atmosphere is crucial to the drama: It brings us into a world where anything goes as long as the environment stays stylish - or, for lesser beings than Lea, simply deluxe. When a rich, vulgar, semi-hated friend, Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates), gently nudges her into an affair with her son Fred (Rupert Friend), whom Lea calls Cheri, the mother, an ex-courtesan, wants the boy smartened up and finished right. Nobody expects Lea and Cheri to fall in love, least of all themselves.

And even when love smacks her between the eyes, Lea maintains her poise. Then Charlotte arranges for Fred to marry Edmee (Felicity Jones), the daughter of another fabulously wealthy courtesan, Marie Laure (Iben Hjejle). Lea knows she has to make a clean break from Cheri; he fantasizes about going back and forth between his wife and his mistress. The split is harrowing for both lovers.

Cheri nails what so many conventional romantic pictures try and fail to capture: the mysterious rightness, as well as the heartbreaking risk, of falling in love with the "wrong" person. Cheri is in many ways perfect for Lea. Since he has grown up with a courtesan, she needn't explain her way of life.

And since he's almost as pretty as she is, he offers excitement mixed with comfort. She can instruct him in hyper-refined worldliness the way older men in movies usually teach girl-women wisdom.

But Cheri's youth is unpredictable as well as pliable. For six years he assents merrily to Lea's loving ministrations. Then his mother's demand that he marry Edmee confuses him - as does Lea's wish that he be a doting husband to his wife. Pfeiffer puts across the euphoria Lea feels at the peak of her affair; she gives the movie a superbly sculpted mid-section.

But what brings home the surprising authenticity of their love is the persuasive way both actors express their characters' gnawing emptiness after Cheri's departure. Frears moves the film with an alacrity and sureness that puts across the caresses of lovers and high life with greater potency than directors who linger on production design.

A few shots are transporting in their impressionistic splendor, such as Lea and Charlotte strolling through a bower - it's as if Frears and his cinematographer, Darius Khondji, found a real-life Monet and put just the right wide-screen frame on it. Yet I think the director shows his level of engagement when he courts obscurity or almost veers out of control.

The motivation behind Cheri's sudden arrivals and exits is momentarily opaque. And when Lea senses her distance from her corrupt, bloated peers in the courtesan's trade, the coarseness of the scene is shocking, though it is straight out of Collette. What's crucial is that Frears dares to go to extremes without violating his story's integrity.

Frears recently said, "A lot of the film has to do with tone because it deals with someone who is frivolous and, as it were, tragic underneath. I was constantly trying to get the right tone." Ninety percent of the time, he did. Cheri is a thing of beauty and a joy for movie lovers.


(Miramax) Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Friend, Kathy Bates. Directed by Stephen Frears. Rated R for sexual content and brief drug use. Time 100 minutes.

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