Details: (M), 100 mins, United Kingdom, English
Synopsis: A romantic drama set in 1920s Paris, where the son of a courtesan retreats into a fantasy world after being forced to end his relationship with the older woman who educated him in the ways of love.
Gallic liaisons that aren’t especially dangerous — or intriguing.
Lightning doesn’t strike twice for Stephen Frears, Christopher Hampton and Michelle Pfeiffer in Chéri, an ambitious but ultimately unsatisfying attempt to recreate the chemistry of their 1989 hit Dangerous Liaisons.
The turgid tale of doomed romance between a retired, forty-something courtesan and a spoilt young man in pre-World War 1 Paris bombed in the UK, France and the US, and it’s not hard to see why. The characters are such a vapid, vain and self-obsessed lot, their entanglements are likely to evoke boredom or, at best, mild interest. The chastely-filmed sex scenes between Pfeiffer’s Léa de Lonval and Rupert Friend’s Fred (whom she nicknames Chéri) are grievously lacking in heat, suggesting their relationship is based more on convenience than all-consuming passion. The fabulous costumes, opulently-furnished mansions and lush gardens are all pretty to look at, but these adornments can’t disguise a soufflé-thin story which offers little tension or emotion.
The pompous narration by director Frears explains the prominence of courtesans (in effect, high-class hookers) who were retained by Crown Princes, Dukes and captains of industry in France’s Belle Époque. Léa hooks up with 19-year-old Chéri with the blessing of his mother Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates), another rich, retired courtesan with an acid tongue and bitchy manner. Six years later, Léa is naturally displeased to learn Charlotte has arranged for her son to wed the virginal Edmee (Felicity Jones), so she can have grand-children. Chéri, the coward, didn’t have the guts to tell her.
It’s clear from the brutal first night of their honeymoon that this union won’t last, and while Léa initially seeks solace from another toy-boy in Biarritz, you just know she’ll be drawn back to her Chéri… but for how long?
For a screenwriter of Hampton’s pedigree, the dialogue is surprisingly flat, lacking wit and sparkle. The source material, two semi-scandalous novels by French author Colette published in the 1920s, described the lad as having feminine traits, and Friend plays him as a lazy, simple-minded fop. Still striking at 51, Pfeiffer struggles to invest her character with much warmth or grace, and one feels little sympathy as she points to her satin-sheeted bed and muses, “This was my only place of business, and the customers have all gone.”
As Mme Peloux, Baker flounces, flutters, laughs and (briefly) cries, but it all sounds forced. Her character’s unswerving dedication to her callow son is hard to fathom, considering he’s insufferably rude to her. And her put-downs to Léa, such as, "Don't you find that when the skin is a little less firm, it holds perfume so much better?" aren’t delivered with much conviction.
The Gallic flavour is somewhat dissipated as the characters speak with neutral accents, except for Friend, who sounds plummy, and we get no sense of the world outside their pampered existence. The director evidently considered Juliette Binoche for the role of Léa; she may have brought a more authentic air to proceedings.
There is a sting in the tale but it’s delivered by narrator Frears almost as a throwaway line, lessening the hammer-blow impact it could and should have had.
In sum, this film is a sumptuous-looking, hollow trifle.
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