It's been 20 years since actress Michelle Pfeiffer, director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton teamed up on Dangerous Liaisons. Now the trio has reunited for Cheri, a movie taken from a pair of novels by Colette and set in the waning years of France's pre-World War I Belle Epoque.
Pfeiffer plays Lea, an aging courtesan who's thinking of retiring. As she says longingly to her maid, "Is there anything in the world more wonderful than a bed all to yourself?"
But then in bursts Cheri, a handsome 19-year-old wastrel. He's been devoting himself to disreputable pursuits, but as soon as he sees Lea the two begin to flirt. Soon enough, they're off to Normandy together — and that's just the beginning.
Pfeiffer and British actor Rupert Friend have excellent on-screen chemistry, and though his character — the classic callow, brooding youth — is more prone to cliche, Friend brings a welcome naturalism to the role.
As for Pfeiffer, she has an aura about her throughout the film, an air of timeless beauty that is always welcome. But as the relationship continues, her character's sadness and confusion at the turns things take make the actress look increasingly careworn.
It's worth noting that despite Pfeiffer's beauty, she's gotten to the age that Hollywood regards as dangerous from a box-office point of view. So it's more than a little ironic that Cheri happens to be about a woman whose increasing age is likewise problematic. This is art imitating life, with a vengeance.
Especially effective in Cheri are the wordless scenes that catch Lea unawares, with the camera alone seeing the despair and regret she hides from the world. It's the kind of refined, delicate acting that only experience can provide.