Cheri (United Kingdom/Germany, 2009)

June 23, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Cheri Poster

Watching Cheri, I felt like someone had turned back the clock by about 15 years. The early-to-mid-1990s were a fertile time for literate, lavish adaptations of period piece literature, with frequent destinations being Europe between the early-1800s and the mid-1900s. Cheri, based on the novel by Colette (actually two novels: Cheri and Le Fin de Cheri), would have been perfectly at home amidst the stately company of Merchant-Ivory, Scorsese's The Age of Innocence, and the endless adaptations of Jane Austen novels. Considering the screenwriter, this should not be a surprise. Christopher Hampton has made a living out of plundering the past, with titles like Dangerous Liaisons and Carrington on his resume. And, while Cheri is not in the same league as either of those giants, it is a respectable and satisfying historical romantic melodrama.

The film opens in the early 1900s, an era in which elite courtesans wielded great power in Parisian society. One of those is Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose dalliances with influential clients are legendary. She becomes involved with Cheri (Rupert Friend), the son of a fellow professional, Madame Perloux (Kathy Bates). Their relationship - initially intended to be a fling - turns into a six-year affair that ends only when Madame Perloux arranges for Cheri to marry Edmee (Felicity Jones), the 18-year old daughter of another courtesan. Once divided by necessity, Lea and Cheri discover that staying apart is more difficult than either of them expected and, despite making valiant attempts to move on, they find themselves drawn back together, like moths to flames.

Hampton's screenplay does an effective job of mixing the story's core romantic longing with a lighter, more deft touch. The latter is especially evident in an acerbic voiceover and it also makes itself felt in the occasional witty one-liners that are flung back-and-forth in conversation. At its breeziest, Cheri recalls Easy Virtue (in large part because the two are reaching theaters in close proximity) although, of course, no one would confuse Noel Coward with Colette. Still, there's enough levity here to keep proceedings from descending into a period soap opera. The resolution, which is expressed to the audience by the narrator, lands like a sledgehammer and left me feeling that it deserved more than the few sentences it is accorded.

The romance is as competently realized as any doomed love affair. It equalizes the protagonists' screen time by showing how each copes with the forced break-up. The story is told economically; there aren't many surprises but there's an emotional honesty to how the character arcs are represented. Cheri relies upon viewer empathy with the lovers. The movie is about the pain and uncertainty that results when circumstances separate those who believe they belong together, and how no amount of self-deception can assuage the ache. Because loss is central to the theme, there's something universal about what Cheri has to say; it speaks even to those who have not been forced by family or society to repress emotions for "the good of all involved."

Cheri isn't heavy on social commentary but neither is it entirely devoid of it. The film is openly critical of the tenets of society that force people apart because their interaction is deemed undesirable. More subtly, it addresses the current stigma attached to sexual liaisons between younger men and older women by making it a non-issue. No one in Cheri ever remarks upon the age gap between Cheri, who is 25, and Lea, who is 49. Within French society of the Belle Epoque, such things were accepted in ways that are not necessarily the case today. (In fact, the one instance in which an age difference is remarked upon is when Cheri questions the seven-year difference between himself and his wife, who is 18.) Likewise, the ability of high-end prostitutes to wield power and command respect may seem to be a strange thing in a culture in which the "world's oldest profession" has been marginalized and made illegal in so many countries and territories.

There's a mismatch in the level of performances provided by the leads. Michelle Pfeiffer, who has largely fallen by the wayside since her popularity peaked in the late-1980s and early-1990s (Hollywood's tendency to discard women over 35 for roles of substance has something to do with this), shows that her recent low profile has not diminished her acting ability. Physical beauty may have been the reason for her early popularity, but she has developed into an effective and nuanced actress. Sadly, Rupert Friend is not her equal. His performance captures the petulance we are supposed to associate with Cheri, but it is otherwise flat and lacking in charisma. Cheri's screen time may roughly equal Lea's, but the strength of Pfeiffer's portrayal when compared to Friend's tilts the balance toward the woman. Kathy Bates is a scene-stealing supporting player, in part because she has many of the best one-liners.

Despite its occasional missteps, like the weakness of Friend's interpretation of the title character, Cheri is an engaging romantic melodrama that provides an authentic sense of time and place. The production values are impeccable and the director and screenplay place us in the midst of the crisis (rather than observing as outsiders), a perspective that adds resonance. Although not as good as some of the great period pieces of 15-20 years ago, it's solid enough not to cause embarrassment by the association.

Cheri (United Kingdom/Germany, 2009)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2009-06-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1