After a string of comedy performances including 'Stardust' and 'Hairspray', Michelle Pfeiffer is back in the corset and Oscar-worthy territory in the period drama 'Chéri'. Twenty years after 'Dangerous Liaisons', this film reunites director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton with their leading lady. The costumes may be similar, the talent and locations too, yet the films tell very different stories.
This screen adaptation of Colette’s French novel follows a beautiful, famous courtesan in 1920s Paris, who falls in love with Fred Peloux, the chéri of the film's title.
The three-time Oscar-nominated Pfeiffer, who recently turned 51, plays Lea de Lonval who despite her years, still captures the heart of the privileged young Peloux.
Friend steps out of his Nazi 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' uniform and into the dandy attire of the handsome Peloux, who is bewitched by, and bewitches, Lea. Initially their union is supported - encouraged even - by his ex-courtesan mother (Bates), who hopes Lea will transform the immature, pompous youth into a desirable, mature man. While Lea fulfils her friend’s wishes, the two fall deeply in love, forming a bond that neither can escape. However, when Madame Peloux arranges a marriage for her son, they are forced to try.
It’s a wonder given Pfeiffer's performance that the film was not named after her character - as per usual she effortlessly dominates every scene. Her screen-time alongside Bates, with the two former rivals swapping quips and witticisms, gives the film its most entertaining moments.
Friend’s performance is frustrating: it is unconvincing that the revered courtesan would fall for such a spoilt juvenile. Thankfully, Pfeiffer shows a tender, vulnerable side to de Lonval, bringing realism to the central relationship without which the film would collapse into pretty pieces. The award-worthy costumes and set designs help to transport audiences back to the post-Belle Époque era.
Frears has revealed a hidden world where women paid a high price for their independently wealthy lives. Ostracised from polite society, the courtesan's social circle consisted solely of fellow ladies of the night.
On the surface it’s a lacklustre world of yore, however, in the hands of 'The Queen' director, every opportunity for humour is used to perfection, not least of all in Frears' own knowing narration of the film.
'Chéri' offers what 'Dangerous Liaisons' lacked: an in-depth, slow-burning look at an alienated element of society, where true love blossoms regardless of the consequences. Yet it’s hard not to miss the passion and provocative satire of its predecessor.