October 20, 2009
Director Stephen Frears and Michelle Pfeiffer first collaborated together on Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and the result was a commercial and critical success, as well as one of the actress’ strongest performances to date as a vulnerable woman at the mercy of a predatory John Malkovich. More than 20 years later, they’ve teamed up again for another period drama called Cheri (2009) but this time it is Pfeiffer who plays a character with a voracious sexual appetite. This project was seen as something of a comeback for the actress who has failed to score a mainstream hit this decade after being a much in-demand A-lister during the 1980s and most of the 1990s.
The setting is pre-World War I Paris, the belle époque era, and courtesan to the rich and famous Lea de Lonval (Pfeiffer) is thinking about retiring. Fred Peloux (Friend), also known as Cheri, is the rich but neglected son of Lea’s archrival, Charlotte (Bates). Cheri has turned 19 and developed all sorts of bad habits over the years because his mother was too busy plying her trade to raise him properly. Lea invites Cheri to her house in Normandy and they begin quite a passionate affair.
Lea teaches Cheri something about women and to grow up, while he gets her to do something she swore would never happen: fall in love. After six years of being together, Charlotte informs Lea that she is marrying off Cheri to a much younger woman for money, much to Lea’s chagrin. Even more surprisingly, Lea realizes that she does have a heart despite her best efforts over the years to keep it in check.
While Michelle Pfeiffer may not have had a mainstream hit in years, she has still been turning in strong performances and picking interesting projects, most notably White Oleander (2002). The one she gives in Cheri is her best since that film as she plays a character with a rich spectrum of emotions. Lea, with her years of experience as a courtesan, exudes confidence, much like Pfeiffer, with her years of acting experience, exudes confidence in this role. What is fascinating to watch is when the cracks of vulnerability begin to appear in Lea’s armour. She’s known Cheri since he was a child and has unconsciously developed an emotional attachment to him during the years of their affair. If she’s honest with herself, Lea does not want to grow old alone like many of her contemporaries who get together and reminisce about the good ol’ days.
As is customary with period dramas, the attention to detail – particularly the costumes and sets – is excellent, transporting us instantly to pre-World War I Paris. Christopher Hampton’s screenplay, adapted from two of Colette’s novels, is very intelligently written with very clever dialogue that the cast has a lot of fun delivering. Stephen Frears, the top notch journeyman director with a diverse body of work that includes films like The Grifters (1990) and High Fidelity (2000), does an excellent job telling the story and makes sure that the style of Cheri never distracts you from what is happening to the characters. He photographs the radiant Pfeiffer beautifully and gives her the room to demonstrate her impressive acting chops.
“The Making of Cheri” is standard press kit material. Frears and Hampton praise Colette’s writing. Hampton talks about how he got Frears interested in the project. The cast sing each other’s praises. The film’s production designer takes us on a mini-tour of one of the sets.
Also included are two deleted scenes that see Lea requesting a change in the look of her home and another one where Cheri and Lea bicker like an old married couple with him acting immature and her mothering him.