This is a deft, clever adaptation by director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton of Colette’s Chéri novellas, with a commanding star turn by Michelle Pfeiffer as the aging courtesan, Léa, who falls for the corrupted youth, Chéri. The setting is the demimonde of Belle Epoque Paris, when (we are told in an introductory voiceover by Frears himself, striking the necessary note of bemused sophistication) top whores commanded considerable celebrity and wealth.
Léa, a professional who has never foolishly given her own heart, suddenly finds herself besotted with a callow young man, through maternal tenderness and the desire to freeze time by holding onto the devotions of youth. It is the classic Lady with Lapdog/Earrings of Madame de . . . template of shallow seducers surprised by love. The young man is the son of another courtesan (played with malicious glee by Kathy Bates), and the real and surrogate mothers duke it out over the boy, with Oedipal undertones suggested but never fussed over. Rupert Friend has the difficult role as the coltishly handsome, infuriatingly immature object of desire who has been spoiled rotten and denied a childhood. Managing to balance hunk and sulky dolt, knowing better than to attempt the charming, precocious Adonis of the young Gérard Philipe in Devil in the Flesh, he only occasionally appears like a frightened deer in the glare of Pfeiffer’s magnanimous star-power.
The film charts with focused clarity this love affair between two separated by a quarter-century age difference. Frears, who came from British TV, has always displayed a rough-and-ready economical skill, refusing to play the self-indulgent auteur. His strengths have been multi-genre adaptability and non-judgmental curiosity about scheming machinations; his weakness, a sort of impersonal glibness. I found that earlier Frears-Hampton adaptation, Dangerous Liaisons (88) distastefully self-satisfied and Masterpiece Theatre arch. This time the two have gotten it right, aided by Pfeiffer, who is a warmer, more sympathetic performer than the cynically preening Malkovich and Close. Then again, the source material offers less to disappoint: Les Liaisons Dangereuses is one of the world’s greatest novels, whereas Colette’s Chéri novellas are fine, subtle, slight entertainments.
For the most part, the film concentrates on the first novella, titled simply Chéri, which ends with Léa relinquishing her lover and returning him to his young wife. In doing so, it invokes the 19th-century sentimental-melodrama tradition of Camille and La Traviata. There is an adumbration of The Last of Chéri in a final voiceover, alluding to the eponymous hero’s looming suicide. The payoff, the sting in Colette’s pair of novellas, occurs in the second one, when not only does Chéri fritter away his life but encounters a much-changed Léa, hair turned gray and “grown enormous . . . Her clothes implied a renunciation of feminine allurement, the long, plain skirt, the severe coat, half open over a linen blouse, gave her a sort of sexless dignity.” Since Colette’s real theme is the tragedy of aging for women, something is lost by omitting this turn of events; but of course it would never do to show Michelle Pfeiffer mannish and fat. From her first impact-registering role in Scarface in 1984, Pfeiffer has always embodied physical perfection and sexual experience. Here, thanks in part to gauzy, wrinkle-forgiving cinematography, Pfeiffer continues to look good enough to eat; and viewers may be puzzled as to what the problem is—how she can claim to be an “old woman,” and why can’t she and her boy-toy just continue to romp in the sack?
Another difference is that Colette was writing about her own time, whereas Frears and Hampton have framed the story with a jauntily ironic nostalgia for La Belle Epoque. Production values are economized, with occasional touches to suggest art nouveau opulence, in the best Ken Russell TV tradition. No need for elaborate sets: a walk through a rose garden or a Mucha reproduction on the wall, will suffice, especially when our primary attention is riveted by the sensuous interplay of the two leads.