'Cheri'

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Stephen Frears never makes the same movie twice. What he does do, though, is make thoroughly professional and immensely entertaining stories that pay particular attention to characters — their flaws, emotions and deepest desires. In "Cheri," he has another dandy.

Whether it will travel as far as his previous film, "The Queen," is hard to say, but with a radiant Michelle Pfeiffer as his heroine, "Cheri" could be a breakout hit.

Frears and his "Dangerous Liaisons" screenwriter Christopher Hampton team again for a French period piece, though this time it's La Belle Epoque — 1906 Paris, to be precise.

Our heroine is Pfeiffer's Lea de Lonval, a breathtaking beauty who is seeing her courtesan career coming to a thankful end. As Cole Porter would say, she has known all kinds of love — except for true love. Then it hits her but good.

It all comes about when an old colleague and rival, Mme. Peloux (a pitch-perfect Kathy Bates), whom Lea doesn't much like, invites her for lunch to pick her brain about Fred (Rupert Friend), Peloux's 19-year-old son, whom Lea long ago nicknamed Cheri. Cheri soon will need to be married off, but his casual hedonism makes him a poor bridegroom.

Cheri always has admired Lea, if only because she is everything his mother is not: warm and wise and still a beauty. He flirtatiously demands a kiss from Lea. She consents. Both are staggered by the passion each senses in the other.

So the two run off for a fling that can only do the boy some good. Astonishingly, the fling lasts for six years. Then Mme. Peloux tells Lea she has found a suitable match for Cheri and that they are to be wed.

What neither party has realized during those six years is that they love each other. Love always has been a commodity, so neither has any familiarity with its sensations or sentiments — at least not until it's taken from them.

How each reacts, how each longs to return to the other and what must finally happen between them, makes glorious and romantic melodrama. The chemistry between Pfeiffer and Friend is positively combustible.

Darius Khondji's mood- catching cinematography, Consolata Boyle's eye-catching costumes and Alan MacDonald's gorgeous sets are entertainment in themselves. But the greatest contribution comes from composer Alexandre Desplat, whose nostalgic, romantic, melancholy score evokes the period perfectly.

Frears simply brings out the best in his collaborators. (partialdiff)
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