Overall, Chéri is less like a film than like the experience of sitting in on a picture-book reading in the children’s room of the local library. Granted, the subject matter—sex, doomed love, and the gradual death of the body and soul—isn’t appropriate children’s literature. (It’d probably win a Newbery, though.) But nothing about Stephen Frears’ first film since 2006’s stellar The Queen has the dynamism of cinema. The characters—a circle of fabulously wealthy courtesans and companions in Belle Époque Paris and environs—lounge, preen, banter, and pose in a succession of airless tableaux. Meanwhile, a warmly paternal narrator fills in their backstories and explains their every action.
Still, the picture-book treatment is faithful to the source material, an airy, dry 1920 comic novel by celebrated French writer Colette. The book’s action is just as minimal and obsessed with surfaces as Frears presents it: An aging courtesan (Michelle Pfeiffer) launches a lengthy affair with a petulant, selfish, beautiful 19-year-old (Rupert Friend). Then his duplicitous mother (an oddly cast but agreeably lively Kathy Bates) arranges his marriage to a suitable girl, and the lovers dutifully part ways, but continue to pine for each other. Their relationship seems based more on convenience and novelty than love, but once forced apart, they examine their lives for the first time, with devastating consequences. There’s a little love and a lot of lust in this scenario, but the only real action comes when fleeting regrets and resolves chase each other across the leads’ expressive faces, or when someone lets selfish pique erupt into a brief tantrum.
And yet Chéri is far from dull, thanks in particular to Pfeiffer’s languorously nuanced performance as a striking beauty whose dalliance with a boy first flatters her, then makes her feel her age and the emptiness of her fiercely independent life. The film’s tacked-on ending is taken from Colette’s 1926 Chéri sequel, but otherwise, it contains none of the sequel’s eventual vindication of her character’s choices; instead, the film is a sumptuous, handsome portrait of a woman poised fearfully on the brink of decline, yet too proud to grab at rescue. The Queen was a similarly staid analysis of a woman coming to terms with endings, but it dealt with weighty affairs of state; Chéri instead is a minor story about romance among the spoiled rich. But it also harkens back to an earlier Frears success: 1998’s Dangerous Liaisons, another film about shallow idlers who dabble in relationships and wind up in over their heads.