Where has one seen this movie before? Oh right, Everywhere. Chéri is like one of those tired period pieces that Hollywood seems to toss out every couple of years just to prove that it can still make films without massive explosions or CGI. The kicker here is that Chéri isn’t a big-budget American movie. It’s the latest film from British director Stephen Frears, the wildly uneven culprit of both the critically acclaimed (Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen, Dangerous Liaisons) and the cinematically challenged (Hero, Mary Reilly). Chéri charts the illicit love affair between the aging Parisian courtesan Lea (Michelle Pfeifer) and the young, dark, and fabulously wealthy Cheri (Rupert Friend), who happens to be the son of another famous courtesan, Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates). At the beginning of the film, we find Cheri adrift in a world of loose women, alcohol, and opium, and Lea whisks him off to the country as a favor to his worried mother. However, they find themselves oddly drawn to each other, and what was supposed to have been a short respite from the sins of the big city turns into a six-year affair. Neither seem really aware of what they have until Peloux abruptly ends it by arranging a marriage for her son to the young daughter of yet another wealthy courtesan. You can see where this is going. The problem is that you won’t care.
If the tired thematic material doesn’t turn you off, the genuinely insincere acting certainly will. Pfeifer’s performance is predictable at best, and Bates plows through her scenes with all the grace of a rhinoceros. Cheri is the only character that is mildly intriguing, but Rupert Friend’s “performance” rests entirely on how many ways we care to interpret the same doleful expression. The remaining supporting cast consists mainly of over the hill prostitutes drenched in makeup, and the cinematography is bland from start to finish. The film is based on the book of the same name by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Collete is perhaps best known for her novel Gigi which was also adapted for the screen in an award winning 1958 Lerner and Lowe musical. Maybe back then Hollywood filmmakers were still new enough to the material — and audiences were conservative enough to be mildly shocked by them — to make these sorts of films memorable. But today, with a few very notable exceptions, adaptations of this nature seem doomed from the outset.