‘Cheri (Watashi no Kawaii Hito Cheri)’

Pfeiffer's sex-drenched period piece elicits la vie en cerise


“After 40, a woman doesn’t need a lover so much as a good PR agent.” That would be a great quote for the mythos surrounding Cleopatra, the global metaphor for ageless beauty of the past three millenniums. Besides her hefty cache of personal charms, she knew the value of self-promotion — you can’t just get a guy to say, “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety,” without deploying legions of reliable PR agents or whatever they were called in Ancient Egypt.

The question is: Would her reputation have survived in the crude, cruel climate of present-day Hollywood? It’s a problem worth pondering when even Michelle Pfeiffer — who, at 52, should be listed in the dictionary under “golden” — is forced to utter such unspeakable lines as, “You’re seeing an old woman,” to a whippersnapper of 25. What’s the world coming to?

Featuring Pfeiffer’s latest appearance (in Japan), “Cheri” showcases all her rarefied, delicate beauty, while never ceasing to remind us that she has reached what the French call un certain a^ge. Directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen,” “High Fidelity”) and based on a novel by love-obsessed Frenchwoman extraordinaire Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, “Cheri” casts Pfeiffer as retired courtesan Lea de Lonval. Finding herself in a fevered relationship with a boy decades younger than herself, she must navigate him through the intricacies and minor snags of privileged, sex-drenched adulthood.

Cheri (Watashi no Kawaii Hito Cheri)
Director Stephen Frears
Run Time 92 minutes
Language English

Their story unfolds in Paris during the Belle Epoque era (between the late 19th century and World War I), when sex and champagne were pleasant luxuries enjoyed by the upper class on a daily basis; not so much talked about as tasted and treasured from moment to moment. No one writes with such assurance and longing for the period as Colette, and her observations of the celebrated courtesans of the day had enormous influence in shaping the image of the Frenchwoman as we know her: a discreet sex kitten with impeccable taste and boatloads of chic.

“Cheri” is a grand attempt at reconstructing both Colette’s prose and her descriptions of the era, and in terms of sheer visual eye-candy-ness, the team of production designer Alan MacDonald and cinematographer Darius Khondji work the magic admirably; in terms of drawing the languorous ambience of Paris offset by Parisians in their feverish pursuit of pleasure, perhaps not so much.

Lovely as she is, Pfeiffer seems too frank and a tad too strident to fit the bill of Lea, who in the book is smart, gorgeous and hopelessly silly. Pfeiffer’s Lea is wonderful to look at, but Pfeiffer’s 21st-century American pragmatism occasionally pops to the surface, in tune with her broad American accent. She articulates when the moment calls for murmuring, explains when all that’s needed is a lingering look from under long lashes.

When we’re first introduced to Lea, she has quit her career at the pinnacle of success — and it’s two months since her last lover, a Russian aristocrat, left her bed to return to his estate. Lea is now luxuriating in blissful solitude with adoring staff who wait on her every need, a circle of women friends who had all been colleagues, and a comfortable future.

And yet she can’t stifle a feeling of melancholy, of which her longtime friend, Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates), makes full use by thrusting her 19-year old son, Fred (Rupert Friend) — known to all as Cheri — in Lea’s face. “I give you the boy. Return him to me as a man,” says Madame Peloux, and apparently the practice of sending off sons into the arms of ex-courtesans thrived among Parisian mothers. Lea and Cheri surprise her by falling inadvertently in love and living in blissful sin for the next six years.

Happiness is cut short, however, when Fred is married off to a wealthy teenager (Felicity Jones). Hiding her heartache, Lea flees Paris for Biarritz and there encounters yet another mom with a young son eager for sexual grooming. Halfheartedly, she begins the cycle anew, all the while missing Cheri like mad. Sigh.

It was never in Colette’s style to moralize, or (God forbid) draw any life lessons, and “Cheri” remains a literary jewel of masterful writing perfumed by a heavy, heady romanticism. Frears almost but not quite transports us to that world, and the intoxication wears off by the last reel, leaving the lingering aftertaste of regret. Whether that’s for Lea, Cheri or just a bygone way of life impossible to duplicate in our dreary digitalized world is a haunting enigma.