Chéri Review
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The end of the 19th century was a time of luxury and excess—and a time of courtesans, who earned a pretty substantial income simply because they were beautiful. Only time will tell if the same will be true for Chéri.

Michelle Pfeiffer stars as Lea de Lonval, an aging French courtesan who, at the turn of the 20th century, is considering retirement. She’s still beautiful—and desired—but it’s all getting a bit…old.

Meanwhile, 19-year-old Fred Peloux (Rupert Friend), the son of Lea’s old rival, Charlotte (Kathy Bates), has also become bored with his rather hedonistic—but lonely—lifestyle. So he turns to his mother’s friend, Lea—the woman who gave him the nickname Chéri.

What starts out as a short-term affair becomes a six-year romance. But their long and passionate relationship is shaken when Charlotte decides to arrange for her son to marry the daughter of another former colleague.

Both struggle to hide their heartbreak—Chéri as he honeymoons with his understandably jealous new bride, Edmee (Felicity Jones), and Lea as she leaves Paris, hoping to find comfort in a new lover. But neither can find the comfort needed to heal and move on.

Based on the novels by Colette and directed by Stephen Frears (of The Queen and Dangerous Liaisons, among others), Chéri is a lush period drama, painted in deep golds and greens, with lavish Belle Époque sets and costumes. It’s beautifully lit, too—which could explain why 51-year-old Pfeiffer looks absolutely, breathtakingly radiant as Lea. And Friend…well, despite his tendency toward Rob Pattinson brooding, it isn’t hard to understand why a woman (even an experienced woman of a certain age) would fall for him. He’s handsome and confident and mysterious and…challenging.

The problem, however, is that much of the film’s beauty goes only skin-deep. The performances are sometimes overdone—as is the drama. It seems as though the actors are trying to make up for the film’s lack of emotional depth—because, while the story of love and longing is often a heartbreaking one, the audience is kept at an arm’s length. We watch it all play out, but we never really feel it. That’s due, in part, to the awkward and intrusive (and strangely flippant) narration, which sets up and concludes the film, simply glossing over what could have been some of the story’s most powerful moments. It just feels like lazy storytelling.

Meanwhile, as for believability…would you believe that Kathy Bates was once the most successful courtesan in Paris? I didn’t think so.

In the end, Chéri is a lot like one of the infamous Belle Époch courtesans: strikingly beautiful, yet somewhat cold and distant.

DVD Review:
A lush and lavish film like Chéri seems to beg for a series of in-depth special features devoted to things like set design and costumes. Unfortunately, though, the film’s DVD release offers only a few minutes of extras—just two deleted scenes (one of which is a mere 17 seconds long) and a short making-of feature.

Still, The Making of Chéri does cover quite a bit of ground in around nine minutes. Cast and crew members discuss their love of Colette and her writing while giving viewers a brief introduction to both the author and to Belle Époch society—in which courtesans like Lea were much like today’s movie stars. The feature also takes just a minute or two to discuss the set design and costumes. And alhough a minute or two isn’t nearly enough time to explore the exquisite sets and elegant costumes, I guess I’ll just have to take what I can get.

These short features are still worth a few minutes of your time. Much like the film itself, though, the DVD release of Chéri is interesting—but it only scratches the surface.

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