Cheri (2009) Movie Review: La Belle Epoque Decadence and Restrained Love

The aging courtesan and her young gentleman companion are not in love, they merely have a mutually beneficial arrangement.
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Chéri is directed by Stephen Frears and stars Michelle Pfeiffer as Léa de Lonval and Rupert Friend as Chéri, or Fred Peloux as he's really called. Set in the Belle Époque in Paris, this is the story of an aging courtesan and her young lover. Or, rather, that's not at all what this story is about, but we'll start there. The story is based on the French novel by the same name by the author Colette.

CheriChéri's mother, Charlotte (Kathy Bates) thinks that her son has become a little too disaffected and disillusioned and wants her good friend, and arch enemy, Léa, to take the young man in hand, as it were. Charlotte and Léa have a long and strange history that is as much rivalry as it is cat-fighting and actual friendship. They are both ladies of the night who have managed to make a good life for themselves by being good at what they do, and they are both getting on in years. Léa is still slim and trim and pretty and Charlotte has gone the way of the matronly harridan.

Fred is passed on from a doting mother who has never really managed to get the hang of the whole mothering-thing, to another older woman who only knows one way of communicating and connecting. They become lovers, and it only seems to trap Chéri in a prolonged adolescence. The pair is equally stubborn about the fact that they are not in a relationship, they merely have a convenient arrangement. This goes on for something like six years until Charlotte arranges a marriage between another of her former colleague's innocent young daughter, Edmée (Felicity Jones) and her son. Chéri does not want the marriage, but he doesn't seem to have much say in his life one way or the other and he's not the most verbally expressive character. He marries Edmée, and that's when the cracks really begin to show. Of course it was never really just an arrangement. Of course they were not just lovers, but in love as well.

The genius of this is all in the casting. Michelle Pfeiffer is perfect as the aging beauty who knows that time is slipping away from her and that her young lover won't, or can't, come back to her once he's married. It takes a while for everyone involved to figure that out, though, and Chéri is the last to know.

A lot depends on being able to show emotional restraint in the world of the professional courtesans, which isn't really conducive to any deep-seated emotions getting vocalized and the role of the concubine is largely to be pleasantly blank when it comes to their own emotional state, letting the client have the right of way. Fred needs to grow up and Léa makes a man of him. It's emblematic that the only one who never calls Fred “Chéri” is his wife, Edmée. Léa counsels Fred to be good to his wife, to treat her kindly, and to basically better himself. After having spent six months apart Fred comes to Léa to spend the night with her and that is where the real change actually happens. While Léa first spends her time thinking of their future together, thinking that he's come back to her, she comes to the realization that their time is over and sends him back to his young wife. It isn't until the very last moments of the movie that Fred finally has his epiphany that Léa was the love of his life. He does not deal well with that.

One of the central themes here is, of course, age and aging. That's why Michelle Pfeiffer is such a good choice. She's gorgeous, but she isn't eighteen anymore, and there comes a time in all out lives when we have to put away childish things. Léa manages a supremely unselfish act in letting Fred go, and all there a kind of melancholy to that, but it is either that or letting bitterness and recriminations take hold and spoil the rest of their time. She is actually bigger than that.

The sets and costumes are appropriately sumptuous and gorgeous and the narrators voice adds a layer of fairytale style storytelling that actually enhances to the overall theme and mood of the story. It's all about surface and restrained emotions, despite the fabled decadence of the time and that makes it thoroughly enjoyable to watch.

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