|Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend star in the period piece “Cheri,’’ a meditation on age and beauty. (Bruno Calvo)|
Courtesan in a corseted society
It takes a while for “Cheri’’ to limber up and get to the heart of the matter. A Belle Époque romantic drama reuniting some of the talents from 1988’s “Dangerous Liaisons’’ - director Stephen Frears, star Michelle Pfeiffer, writer Christopher Hampton - the movie at first seems a waxwork parody of Merchant Ivory-style filmmaking. It’s all bustles and brocades and arch dialogue, and there’s the additional incongruity of a California blonde amid the 1890s stemware.
Yet Pfeiffer has worn period gowns before, in “Liaisons’’ and 1993’s “The Age of Innocence,’’ and she has worn them well. If her voice remains flatly American, as an actress she’s alive to the genre’s diplomatic nuances - the way a woman in a corseted society can say one thing while meaning the exact opposite.
“Cheri’’ is based on a pair of novels by the French writer Colette, the first of which caused a scandal by turning the cliches of romantic fiction upside down. For one thing, Cheri is a man, a young and dissolute Parisian played with Pre-Raphaelite fragility by Rupert Friend. For another, his lover, Lea de Lonval (Pfeiffer), is several decades older than he. For a third, she’s a courtesan, recently retired. “Women who do what we do, no one else would understand,’’ Lea says. Well, yes, but we live vicariously through fiction. Colette knew that and so do movie producers.
Cheri’s mother, Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates), is a former courtesan herself, living opulently on the earnings of a professional mistress. She’s a battle-ax and a busybody - stuffed into her bodices like a sausage, Bates has a high old time - and she tosses her son to her friend Lea for a little toughening up. Six years later, the pair are still together, comfortable without ever confessing to emotional intimacy. That only comes when Madame Peloux arranges Cheri’s marriage to the innocent young Edmee (Felicity Jones).
Separated, Lea and Cheri maintain respective stiff yet wobbly upper lips. “Cheri’’ is a less tart story onscreen than on the page, and its keynote is pining. Pfeiffer and Friend each wilt in interesting ways, she with ladylike stoicism, he with brooding petulance, and Friend is a good enough actor to play to the thwarted little boy under the dashing young man.
All well and good, and nothing you haven’t seen in other movies where the characters tend to get upstaged by the drapery. What makes “Cheri’’ worth your while is that its true subjects are women and age, and its observations apply to both 19th-century France and the modern film industry. Like her character, Pfeiffer is a celebrated beauty on the far side of the curve, doomed by a Hollywood that, to quote “The First Wives Club,’’ thinks the three ages of women are babe, district attorney, and Miss Daisy.
The actress knows this. The proof’s in her performance, a surprisingly layered work of confidence, panic, acceptance, and vanity (both Pfeiffer’s and her character’s). Lea keeps looking at her hands as if expecting her skin to betray her; at times, Frears and his cinematographer Darius Khondji cruelly turn up the lights to accentuate the pallor and sag of Pfeiffer’s face. There’s an awareness, too, of the ways civilized society turns beauty into a commodity. “What am I worth to you?’’ Lea scornfully asks Cheri, and the question ripples right out past the screen.
The movie introduces a few old harlots who are grotesque parodies of Lea, the couple’s worst fears made flesh. None is as arresting as Anita Pallenberg, the bad-girl beauty of the British ’60s pop scene and now a withered beldame who resembles nothing so much as her onetime lover Keith Richards in drag. Cheri asks about her pearls. “They’re fake,’’ she gleefully croaks.
If the movie were better - less swoony, more relentless - it might be unbearable to watch. As it is, “Cheri’’ touches on the insecure egotism of courtesans and movie stars with a knowing firmness. Yes, Pfeiffer’s still one of the most beautiful women in the business, but what does that get you in a business addicted to youth? In the movie’s most harrowing image, she stares through the mirror of the camera lens into the audience itself. Does she want us to reflect back what she once was or what she will be? I’m not sure even Pfeiffer knows.