CHERI (2009)

Cheri, the period piece directed by Stephen Frears, satisfies on so many levels. It is art film, romance, drama and even comedy, with stars such as Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathy Bates and Rupert Friend lending it sparkle. Pfeiffer turns in one of her best performances ever as an aging, French courtesan during the Belle Epoque (early 1900s). Her character, Lea de Lonval, has a long-term affair with her best friend's beautiful son, Fred (Friend), whom she has called Cheri since he was a little boy. He is a rather indolent, spoiled, young man, pampered by the two maternal figures in his life. He's a bit of a fop: adoring fine clothes, jewellery and all of the finer things in life. He doesn't mind being kept by Lea (whom he has always called Nunu) and she doesn't mind keeping him. But their relationship is more than cougar and gigolo. Much more. They truly and deeply love each other, though neither freely admits it, for the dalliance they enjoy is more delicious than a conventional relationship. After Cheri and Lea have lived together for several years, his mother, Madame Peloux, decides he must marry a rich young woman and he reluctantly goes along - with Lea's condescension - at least outwardly. Yet the pain that each feels over their separation is a palpable, exquisite longing. The film is an expression of all that is beautiful about the Belle Epoque: literally, "The Beautiful Era." They truly and deeply love each other, though neither freely admits it, for the dalliance they enjoy is more delicious than a conventional relationship.

Frears is obviously in love with the time period. Every shot is in itself a masterpiece, exhibiting and exalting the architecture, furniture, clothing, jewellery and design that represent the hallmark style of the period, Art Nouveau. The visual delights never stop. The scenery, lighting and of course the lovely Ms Pfeiffer, even at her "advanced" age of forty-something, are wondrous. However, as this is a film made largely to appeal to women, its centerpiece is the gorgeous Friend, often scantily clad, who lounges about in deliberate poses that set off his pale, slim, youthful body and chiselled face to ultimate effect. There's even a moment when we enjoy an excellent butt shot of him exiting the boudoir.
Frears understands women. He also understands actors. Though set in France, the American and British actors use their own accents with upper class intonation, and it all works. No one is trying to pretend a French accent just because they're supposed to be French. Bates is hysterically funny - and somewhat frightening - as the overbearing, money-hungry, gossip mongering Madame Peloux; and all her ridiculous cohorts add the perfect note of satire. Friend flawlessly embodies the idea of boy-toy, torn though his character is between his love for Lea and his duty to the wealth he maintains by feigning interest in his innocent, young wife. There are no promises of a happy ending here, merely an ending that fits. The story, written by the notorious author of erotica, Colette, is masterfully crafted. And though most books are better than their film counterparts, it's hard to imagine a read more satisfying than this sensual work of art.

Movie reviewed by Georgina Young-Ellis

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