Take the timeless, transcendent beauty of Michelle Pfeiffer, add a biting, bawdy Kathy Bates, place them in the sublime setting of Paris’s Belle Epoque, and slowly and sensuously stir it all together with the direction of Stephen Frears (“Dangerous Liasons”) in a batter composed of two short stories by Colette. The result: a saucy sweet and tartly tasty French soufflé called “Cheri,” now playing at the Tara Theater in Atlanta.
Cheri is a delicious but imperfect dish. It has a bit of a slow start, a tad of miscasting and a somewhat expected plot. But I loved every delectable bite. Pfeiffer is phenomenal in this luscious mixture of grand romance and caustic cynicism….wit and wistfulness. It is set in tres chic Paris during its most beautiful era, and the clothes are awesome. Need I say more?
Pfeiffer at 51 is still perhaps the most beautiful actress on film. With a classically-chiseled face that could have incited the Trojan Wars or triggered a knight’s joust, in Cheri, she is utterly believable as a celebrated sensation of the late 19th century. An infamous courtesan who counts only counts and other rich and famous “gentlemen” as her clients, Lea’ (Pfeiffer) is 49 as the film opens. The century has turned and she is tired and beginning to contemplate the joys of “having a whole bed just to yourself.”
She is also a very reluctant soon-to-be member of a sort of “courtesan club” of aging and ancient fallen women who keep their own company on the outside of proper high society. As depicted in the film, these women had all the perks of the rich, (haute couture, elegant homes, jewels, servants, etc.) but were persona non grata with the upper crust. After all, when one has consorted with the king in flagrante delicto, it is unlikely you’ll be welcomed for tea at the queen’s. As a result, these ladies create their own society playing cards, dishing dirt and reliving their concubine crimes of the heart.
The unofficial leader of the pack is Kathy Bates as Charlotte Peloux, long-retired and a long-ago rival of Lea’s (although that’s a bit hard to believe). When Charlotte invites Lea’ for tea, she is really planning something more, or should we say amour, in the form of her debauched 19-year old son, nicknamed Cheri (Rupert Friend). Hoping to get her son off of opium orgies and into the arms of a respectable madam who can bring him under control, Charlotte/Bates uses some pretense to leave Cheri and Lea’ alone. Fueled by the combustive chemistry generated by one gorgeous creature for another, as well as the narcissistic thoughts they must have had about how good they look together, nature takes its course.
Six years later, Lea’ and Cheri are still together. Is it a party that has gone on too long because their sex-life is a gift that keeps on giving? Or, is it at long last love (which is an anathema to the cynical natures of both)? The answers are prompted by Mama Charlotte’s sudden plans to marry-off Cheri to young, virginal Edme (Felicity Jones) the daughter of another one of her courtesan companions. Mama Charlotte wants to become a very unlikely Grandma Charlotte.
What happens will not be revealed here, but it is when the aforementioned sweet sauciness of the film turns tart with regrets, recriminations and an exploration of the essence of love.
As Lea’, Pfeiffer reminds us that she is not just another breathtaking face. She masterfully uses it as a tool that poignantly captures the bitter irony of a woman who may have at last found meaning in a trivial life, but possibly too late. And, she fearlessly displays it, sans makeup, into the uncompromising harshness of direct sunlight in a scene meant to starkly underscore the age difference between her and her 25-year-old lover. She still looks better than 99 percent of the female population at age 20 … and she has never been better as an actress.
Bates, although always worth watching, is less convincing as a great faded beauty whose sexual charms and grace once rivaled Pfeiffer’s. She is all steel and no magnolia. Still, she camps it up with cloying cattiness as a bawdy matron who’s gratefully settled into a retirement where she can eat what she wants, replacing a bod once made for sin with a head made for figures in the investment market.
At first, Rupert Friend’s Cheri is all indolent, callous youth, and like most teenagers, really hard for us adults to get to know. It’s a bit difficult to see anything more than transitory pleasure that could hold a sophisticated woman like Lea’ for more than six hours, much less six years. Yet, perhaps that was the director’s intent. As Cheri is forced into marriage with a young girl who expects a grown man for a husband instead of a boy toy, he is forced to evolve into just that. For the first time, he contemplates more about his life than what he should wear to show off his new cravat.
Like the play and film “Prelude to a Kiss,” Cheri explores the nature of erotic, romantic love versus enduring love … the physical shells that attract us but will eventually age and wither, versus two souls bound by the essence of what’s within. And in the end, that painful reckoning for Cheri and Lea’ is credible and compelling.
I highly recommend Cheri to all dewstresses who will love the sumptuousness and Camille-like quality of it all … and to dewers who are secure in their manhood.