You arrive at an upscale restaurant, absolutely famished, and order an extravagant entree. When the plate arrives, on it sits a tiny cube of meat, decorated with illustrious sauces and eye-catching garnishes. The flavors are robust and tantalizing, but in the end, you're still hungry. That's the sensation Chéri evokes: It tastes good and looks good, but doesn't quite satisfy and leaves you wanting more.
It's 1906 in Paris, a time and place where courtesans, like Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer), are classy, beautiful, and distinguished. Lea's getting up there in age, though, and her prominent career is coming to an end. She's never known true love, and really hasn't been searching for it. Article continues below
One day, a hearty former colleague named Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates), invites her over for lunch to talk about her 19-year-old son Fred (Rupert Friend), who has become lethargic and unmotivated. Lea and Fred have always had a unique relationship. Fred --whom Lea nicknamed Chéri years prior -- has idolized her for years, perhaps because she is everything his mother is not: gorgeous, wise, and caring. The two flirt playfully during lunch, share an awkward kiss, sense chemistry, and then begin an unexpected fling... a fling that lasts six whole years.
Chéri and Lea have a ball together, until Madame Peloux finds a woman for her son. Her selection: Edme (Felicity Jones), the child of another aging courtesan. The wedding, taking place next month, shocks the lovers. Of course, Cheri has little choice but to marry Edme. So Lea runs off to another city in search of a new love, and Cheri marries Edme as he is instructed. Lea and Cheri quickly realize that they are tortured souls without each other. They have fallen in love. But what can they do about it?
Chéri employs a phenomenal production team, including Darius Khondji as cinematographer, Consolata Boyle as costume designer, and Alan MacDonald as production designer. The film captures its time and era with vivacity and detail. It is meticulously crafted and dazzles the senses.
Based on the story by Colette, Chéri reunites director Stephen Frears and his Dangerous Liaisons screenwriter Christopher Hampton. Frears has a knack for character-driven films, as seen in The Queen and Mary Reilly, and he and Hampton do a good job here of tapping into the psyches of Lea and Chéri. Pfeiffer and Friend share a beautiful, languid chemistry. Their unquenchable thirst for each other and untamable physical attraction radiate from the screen.
Yet, the pacing is quite slack for the film's 92-minute running time. Frears has all the ingredients in place -- romance, passion, sex, frustration -- but fails to tackle them aggressively. Instead, he fondles with the emotions far too casually, never building enough speed and momentum to allow the film to take flight. As a result, the movie moves along awkwardly. It feels longer than it is, but leaves the audience hanging.
Furthermore, Chéri's subtle comic undertones neutralize the heavy drama. Nothing in the story is particularly funny, so why accent it with quirky humor? The outcome is mediocrity: a film that is too light-hearted to feel dramatic and too dramatic to feel light-hearted. Chéri should have swept the audience off their feet and carried them to the bedroom... but instead teases them with a whiff of perfume and a flirtatious wink.