On paper Chéri should have worked: a director in Stephen Frears, who can turn his hand to any genre; a story that allows him to further explore "strong women" in a man's world (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, The Snapper, The Queen, Mrs Henderson Presents); a writer in Christopher Hampton who knows a thing or two about adapting novels with Atonement on his CV; the up and coming Rupert Friend as the male lead; and in Michelle Pfeiffer it boasts an actress comfortable in her "repressed feelings" shtick. However, Chéri's problems are rooted in character, a problem that never allows the film to really engage the audience.
Set in 1920's Paris, Chéri sees Pfeiffer play Belle Epoque Lea. A once-popular courtesan, Lea is now of a certain age and, because her career has allowed her to live independently, is contemplating retirement. Lea is asked by friend and former 'colleague' Charlotte (Bates) to school her 19-year-old bounder son Fred (Friend), whom Lea has nicknamed Chéri, in the art of lovemaking and what it means to be a man. They embark as sex partners but wind up bonafide lovers, a hurdle that proves troublesome when Charlotte pushes Chéri into a marriage with the cold Edmee (Jones).
The theme of Chéri is an interesting one, one that Frears keeps bubbling under the surface. In showing the audience the flaw in Lea's stunning emerald, the beautiful flower that rots in Lea's hand, and the genuine pearls that turn out to be fake, the film tells us that love would be perfect if only for those involved. Lovers, people, ruin love - they're the flaw in perfection; the flaw in this sumptuous-looking film is character.
Brave in that Frears and Hampton don't put any obstacles in their heroes' ways but themselves, the film fails to ignite because of that - there isn't enough drama or conflict to keep these people apart. Friend is fine in a role that's problematic (reminiscent of Malkovich's Valmont, minus the evil cynicism), while his Chéri is a spoiled brat, unwilling to stand up for himself and only able to indulge in pleasure. "You have everything you could possibly want and none of it means a thing," says Pfeiffer. It's tough to root for someone like that. Friend, though, is a sideshow to Pfeiffer. Chéri is her film, but she never really gets her arms around it. Perfect in smiling through heartbreak and displaying vulnerability under a cold and professional veneer, Pfeiffer's Lea has nothing to do but wait around for plot to come her way.