Film Review: Cheri

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Berlin International Film Festival -- Competition
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BERLIN -- 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 last film, "The Queen," is hard to say, but with a radiant Michelle Pfeiffer as his heroine, "Cheri" could well be another breakout hit.

Frears and his "Dangerous Liaisons" screenwriter Christopher Hampton team up again for a French period piece although this time it's La Belle Epoque -- 1906 Paris to be precise. The story is by Colette, so naturally it's about the demi-monde where courtesans are celebrated for their beauty and ability to please and ruin famous men in equal measure.

Our heroine is Pfeiffer's Lea de Lonval, a breathtaking beauty who is seeing her 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 she doesn't very much like, invites her for lunch to pick her brain about her indolent 19-year-old son Fred, whom Lea long ago nicknamed Cheri (Rupert Friend). Cheri will soon need to be successfully married off, but his casual hedonism makes him a poor bridegroom.

Cheri has always 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. They playfully quarrel and make love and feel absurdly comfortable in each other's company.

Then Mme Pelous arranges another lunch. She tells Lea she has found a suitable match for Cheri, Edme (Felicity Jones), the daughter of another old courtesan.

The wedding, set in a few weeks time, staggers the lovers. Cheri has to go through with it, of course, and Lea pretends to run off to Biarritz with a new lover. In fact, she goes only with her maid to seek consolation with whatever good-looking young man she can find.
What neither party has realized in those six years is that they love each other. Love has always 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. Amid all the worldly cynicism, decadence and dry wit -- as exemplified by a droll narration running through the movie -- love has come along to spoil everything.

The chemistry between Pfeiffer and Friend is positively combustible. One feels the hunger in each, the rising physical passion and emotional vulnerability in two people who, if asked, would scorn love as a human weakness. The film is in English, of course, but it can't escape a certain Frenchness: Those who would mock love are done in by love.

Hampton has cherry-picked from two Colette novels that chart the doomed love of Lea and Cheri to deliver the juiciest parts, ending just before a world war is poised to sweep away the Belle Epoque forever.

Actors blossom under Frears' direction. There is no false moment or off-key note in this movie. The artificiality of people's behavior in the demi-monde makes a distinct contrast with the humbling neediness of the two lovers in private.

Darius Khondji's mood-catching cinematography, Consolata Boyle's eye-catching costumes and Alan MacDonald's gorgeous sets are all 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.

Miramax Films
production companies: MMC Independent, Hurth, Pathe Prods., SAS

Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Friend, Kathy Bates, Frances Tomelty, Tom Burke, Felicity Jones, Hubert Tellegen, Joe Sheridan

Director: Stephen Frears
Screenwriter: Christopher Hampton
Based on the novel by: Colette
Producers: Bill Kenwright, Andras Hamori, Tracey Seaward, Thom Mount.
Executive producers: Jessica Lange, Francois Ivernet, Cameron McCracken, Christopher Hampton, Richard Temple, Simon Fawcett
Director of photography: Darius Khondji
Production designer: Alan MacDonald
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Costume designer: Consolata Boyle
Editor: Lucia Zuchetti
Sales: Pathe International

No rating, 91 minutes