The world’s oldest profession has experienced an on screen revival of late. Steven Soderbergh’s film The Girlfriend Experience is a thoroughly modern look at the life of an escort while Cheri, the new film from Stephen Frears (of Dangerous Liaisons and The Queen fame) is a decidedly old fashioned take on the life of a lady of the night. Based on a 1920 novel by French author Colette it tells the story of the end of a six-year affair between a retired courtesan, Léa de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer), and an ostentatious young man, Fred ‘Chéri’ Peloux (Rupert Friend). When the relationship is over each must learn to go on with their lives. “Living with someone for six years is like following your husband to the colonies,” says Léa. “When you come back you’ve forgotten how to act and what to wear.”
The two films share a theme, the notion of what happens when people who sell themselves actually fall in love, but while Soderbergh’s take on the situation is up-to-the-minute with its references to Obama and the market meltdown Frears has taken a different path. His movie is not only set in the 1900s, but it feels like it was made in the 1900s; it feels old fashioned and staid.
The film is beautifully appointed—the sets, clothes and period details are bang on—but the acting style is stiff (with the exception of Kathy Bates, the only live wire in the cast), and the language a touch too courtly. For a movie about a courtesan it’s a bit too mannered.
The film has lots of problems. Firstly it breaks a cardinal rule of movie making: show me don’t tell me. A narrator (the voice of director Frears) pops up now and again to clumsily fill in the details sadly lacking in the film’s storytelling. When a narrator is needed to keep the momentum moving forward something is amiss.
Secondly affairs of the heart are unpredictable things, but Léa and Chéri are so self absorbed that their dangerous liaison never comes across as interesting. Their emotions are on the surface with no real depth. It was a repressed time but the film presents it and its characters as vapid rather than simply reserved.
If the story was more interesting those faults could be forgiven but the real killer here, the thing that drags the whole movie down is the casting of Rupert Friend as Chéri. There is love sick. There’s morose and then there is whatever Friend is trying to convey here. He turns Chéri into such a doleful wet rag it’s hard to imagine that anyone would want to spend a minute in the same room with him, let alone surrender their heart.
Pfeiffer fares better, wringing some emotion from the affected script and bringing sophistication to the character but is undone by an underwritten story.
Cheri is a minor work from a major filmmaker and talented cast.
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