'Cheri" is a sumptuous period film, a literate work whose pedigree might seem intimidating to those who weren't English majors. At heart, it's a simple story of doomed love. For a while, the gorgeous scenery, costumes and cinematography blind you to the film's flaws.
Based on two works by French writer Colette, "Cheri" tells the story of Lea (Michelle Pfeiffer), a 1920s courtesan -- OK, a prostitute, but the best around -- whose work has given her an extravagant life. Lea is beautiful, but she's aging out of the business and is retiring. She has a prickly relationship with another retired and successful courtesan, Charlotte, played by Kathy Bates. Their visits mostly consist of well-aimed verbal daggers, but there's clearly a longtime familiarity.
Charlotte has a 19-year-old son nicknamed Cheri (Rupert Friend), an androgynous, pouty waif who has spent his life partying and bedding women. The narrator tells us he's grown tired of that life, but it has turned him into a petulant, unskilled man-child. Charlotte asks Lea to help her shape up the boy. They have a rapport; he even grew up affectionately calling Lea "Noo Noon."
Lea takes him on in the only way she knows how: He becomes her lover, a situation she thinks will be temporary, like her other arrangements. He ends up living with her for six years.
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Neither Lea nor Cheri can admit it, but they have fallen in love. So when Charlotte decides that she wants grandchildren and strikes a deal with another courtesan to marry Cheri to her daughter (Felicity Jones), a tale of yearning begins.
The problem is it's hard to see why Lea falls for Cheri. At one point, she says, "I can't criticize his character, mainly because he doesn't seem to have one," and that's pretty accurate. Charlotte was an absent mother, and while that's probably for the best in this case, it's left Cheri devoid of nearly everything that makes one desirable.
Lea sees relationships as business deals, so I suppose she's no prize either. It seems that what Cheri offers her most is reclaimed youth. An old prostitute is a lonely woman, it seems. Still, the sequence that shows their relationship forming moves much too quickly to be convincing.
Pfeiffer is perfectly cast. She has the archness to deliver the barbs and the life experience to portray the world-weariness, deep desire and despair. As an actress, she hasn't necessarily traded on her beauty, but she's aware that it hasn't hurt. So when her character reflects on growing older and fading looks, it may not be what Pfeiffer feels, but it's a issue she could understand. Friend comes across as vacant, which fits his role, but he doesn't have the presence to create real sparks with Pfeiffer.
The narrator introduces the story as a tale with a moral, but his tone is a bit jaunty, even smug, a weird fit for a tragic tale. I've read that director Stephen Frears provides the voice, which means he undercut his own film.
That the couple at the center of this story aren't convincingly passionate eventually leaves you cold. This is a pair for whom love has been a commodity. When they finally find the real thing, it shouldn't feel like business as usual.