Back in 1988, director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton teamed up for “Dangerous Liaisons,” one of the juiciest guilty pleasures ever. It earned seven Academy Award nominations, including best supporting actress for Michelle Pfeiffer, and won three.
Frears and Hampton have reunited for “Cheri,” with Pfeiffer as their star, but it has none of the same irresistible meat or bite.
Pfeiffer is luminous as ever as an aging courtesan in belle epoque Paris. But the romance in which she finds herself is totally implausible from the start. And that’s a problem, because that’s the thing we’re supposed to care about.
Based on the Colette novels “Cheri” and “The Last of Cheri,” the film features Pfeiffer as Lea de Lonval, a venerable seductress on the verge of retirement. Her longtime rival, the catty gossip Charlotte Peloux (a shrilly over-the-top Kathy Bates), asks Lea to knock some sense into her 19-year-old son (Rupert Friend), an incorrigible party boy nicknamed Cheri.
Trouble is, they fall in love with each other despite the difference in their ages, personalities and life experiences.
At least we’re meant to believe they fall in love with each other: They keep saying so, but they have so little chemistry and the development of their relationship seems so truncated, it’s hard to accept.
Lea is supposed to be ravaged with loneliness and jealousy when Charlotte forces Cheri into a marriage with the more age-appropriate (and wealthy) Edmee (Felicity Jones), daughter of yet another successful courtesan.
But Cheri comes across as androgynous and rather asexual; more crucially, he’s also a petulant brat. It makes you wonder what such a smart woman would see in him, besides the fact that he probably makes her feel younger by association.
“Cheri” is always lovely to look at, shot lushly in decadent settings by cinematographer Darius Khondji. And Pfeiffer wears the period clothes fabulously, as you would expect.
The film itself, though, is all dressed up with nowhere to go.