Like a passable bottle of champagne, “Cheri” fizzes and slides down quite easily but lacks real body and doesn’t really hit the spot. Driven along by Alexandre Desplat’s busy score, scrumptious duds by Consolata Boyle, pastel-tinged widescreen lensing by Darius Khondji and, most of all, by Kathy Bates’ scene-stealing turn, this Stephen Frears-Christopher Hampton adaptation of Colette’s famous Belle Epoque tale of romance between an experienced older courtesan and a spoiled youth is, like Michelle Pfeiffer’s lead perf, short on real passion and emotion. Moderate rather than sparkling biz looks likely.
This latest adaptation of two novels — “Cheri” and sequel “The Last of Cheri” — published by French scribe/bonne viveuse Colette (“Gigi”) in the 1920s goes out in Blighty in late March and then Stateside via Miramax.
Frears himself provides a wry, occasional voiceover that sets the tone at the start, describing the rise to prominence of high-society courtesans toward the end of the 19th century before being swept away by WWI. But though famous Parisian watering hole Maxim’s is briefly evoked, the picture never establishes any real atmosphere or feeling for the dolce vita period in which the main characters moved. Viewers hear about it, and see some of its personalities, but it’s almost as if the whole Belle Epoque is taking place offscreen.
At least Hampton’s tight screenplay wastes no time getting down to business. While visiting a retired colleague, Charlotte Peloux (Bates), for some barbed gossiping, also-retired courtesan Lea (Pfeiffer) meets Charlotte’s pleasure-loving, 19-year-old son, nicknamed “Cheri” (Rupert Friend). Before you can say “fornication,” the two are doing just that, and next thing, they’ve been together for six years.
But by now, the scheming Charlotte has arranged for Cheri to marry the virginal Edmee (Felicity Jones), 18-year-old daughter of ex-courtesan Marie-Laure (Iben Hjejle). Miffed, but putting on a brave face, Lea heads south to Biarritz for some sun and young male flesh, but it’s only a matter of time before she and Cheri hook up again in Paris to resolve their feelings.
Bates is the only cast member to inject a sense of real bitchiness and vivacity into the dialogue, with her handling of lines to Lea like, “Don’t you find that when the skin is a little less firm, it holds perfume so much better?” an ongoing pleasure. As Hampton’s adaptation leaves out the reversed role playing between the strong Lea and almost feminine Cheri, the movie has the bloodless feel of having been sanitized for general consumption.
What’s left is hardly Colette and hardly a sophisticated drawing-room/bedroom dramedy, either, though it tries very hard and manages to surf easily enough through a tight 92 minutes on looks alone.
Still impossibly beautiful as she approaches 50 — too much, in fact, for the role — Pfeiffer has elegance to spare. However, she’s not quite up to the nuances of Hampton’s dialogue or the inner feelings of a retired courtesan awakened by a spoiled, moody boy. (It’s a role that may have been better attempted by Jessica Lange, one of the exec producers.)
Friend, so good as the Germanic Prince Albert in “The Young Victoria,” cuts a suitably louche figure as Cheri. But his character lacks enough backgrounding and sufficient onscreen chemistry with Pfeiffer for the romance to drive the picture.
Other roles are mostly bits, with Jones getting only a few scenes to sketch the girlish Edmee, and reliable thesps like Frances Tomelty, Iben Hjejle (Frears’ “High Fidelity”) and Harriet Walter (the aunt in “Young Victoria”) even less time onscreen.