Remember that parable about the kingdom lost because of the war, because of the battle, because of the message, because of the rider, because of the horse, because of the shoe, because of the nail? There’s a similar hierarchy of disaster in “Chéri,” by which the chemistry-free and inexplicable romantic relationship between the two lead characters causes a ripple effect that dooms the entire movie.
Fans of “Dangerous Liaisons” were no doubt hoping to sink their teeth into something similarly racy and gut-wrenching — since “Chéri” reunites actress Michelle Pfeiffer, director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton from that earlier hit — but the result is a collapsed soufflé made from ingredients that never should have been mixed together in the first place.
In this adaptation of two novels by Colette, Pfeiffer stars as Léa de Lonval, one of the leading courtesans of belle époque Paris. She’s just concluded the latest in a string of affairs and is looking forward to sleeping alone for awhile when she becomes reacquainted with Chéri (Rupert Friend), a young man she’s known his entire life. Chéri’s mother Charlotte (Kathy Bates) — a former rival of Léa’s who married well — can’t cope with the lazy wastrel her 20-something son has become and hopes that Léa can teach the boy a thing or two about life at Léa’s country estate.
Much to Léa’s surprise, she winds up falling in love with the boy, mainly because his youth distracts her from her impending age. And this is where “Chéri” takes its fatal turn, because Léa has been presented as a character who is ruthlessly intelligent and efficient regarding matters of the heart; whether her obsession with the lad comes from his own magnetism — unlikely, since Friend insipidly plays the character as a pouty brat from start to finish — or is merely an outgrowth of her terror about getting old, the movie fails to get us over that hump.
What should have been a character study of a smart woman making foolish choices becomes a masochistic exercise in which Léa and Chéri break up, see other people, take turns getting obsessed with each other, come close to reconciliation, and so on.
Pfeiffer, at least, seems to be having a ball playing a scandalous woman in this anti-“Gigi” (also based on the writings of Colette); whether she’s fishing for gossip at a tea party or seducing a muscular young virgin at the seashore, she makes more of the character than Hampton generally offers in his bloodless script. (But did we have to have a scene where Léa picks an autumn flower, only to have it collapse in her hand? Jeez, Stephen Frears, why not just have a deafeningly loud ticking clock to remind us of the passage of time?)
Kathy Bates, on the other hand, gives the kind of terrible performance that only a great actress can deliver, arching her eyebrows to the ceiling and making the goosiest exclamations of surprise and horror. It’s the kind of turn that would make even a drag queen suggest that she dial it down.
For those in search of a Sunday matinee that offers lots of beautiful gowns and ornate tea sets, “Chéri” will not disappoint; from Darius Khondji’s delectable cinematography to the production design of Alan MacDonald (“The Queen”), the film always offers something to look at, even when you’re hoping that everyone on screen would just shut up for a moment.
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