Our rating: 2 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
Presented as an "artsy" dramatic presentation of a well-known novel, Cheri is the story of a young man who falls hopelessly in love with an older woman before social conventions and marriage pull them apart.
It has been many years since Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer) has been accustomed to working. Surrounded with luxury and enjoying the companionship of faithful patrons, she is distanced from society due to her status as a French Courtesan. Forbidden from associating with proper ladies, Lea and others of her kind form a small community of associates who secretly despise one another but put on a friendly public face. Her oldest rival and sometime "friend" Charlotte (Kathy Bates) has summed Lea to speak with her son about his constant state of melancholy. Known by his pet name, Cheri (Friend) is bored with a life of idleness and has long harbored affection toward Lea, who invites him to go into the country with her.
What transpires is a six-year love affair in which both feign only disinterested affection, but their happiness is threatened when Charlotte arranges a marriage between Cheri and Edmee (Felicity Jones), the daughter of another courtesan. The lovers separate but each cannot come to terms with the marriage, especially Lea who faces the sadness of growing older alone and nearing the end of the age in which men seek her romantic attention. The movie is of course rather scandalous and the topic certainly disreputable, but does benefit from having a marvelous cast. Pfeiffer has a quiet sadness about her that suits the part of Lea, and I was impressed with Rupert Friend's ability to act out a boy who seems to have no sense of where his life should go. He is terribly sweet and unreservedly childish but at the same time leaves a lingering impression. The underlining animosity between the older characters is contrasted nicely with the politeness of Edmee and Cheri.
This is the sort of story that cannot truly have a happy ending and so it doesn't, but one of the interesting aspects about it is the voice over narrative. It starts off with the opening credits and then vanishes for awhile until it makes a dramatic reappearance at the end. Most of what is said has a charming sort of subtle literary edge to it, making it sound almost as if we were reading out of an exceedingly well-written novel. The costume design is also exquisite, with late Victorian gowns slowly retreating into the style of the new century. All of the sets are very lush and invigorating and the photography is gorgeous. Even so, I was not wholly convinced at times that the camera was taking full advantage of the actors, since along with the breathtaking sweeping shots were a few rather unflattering ones -- perhaps in an attempt to illustrate just how "old" Lea truly has become.
Naturally, the plot contains aspects that will make some audiences uncomfortable and if you can overcome the "creepiness" factor involved with having a nineteen year old involved with a woman in her fifties, there is still some blatant content to be dealt with. Cheri and Lea only have one true love scene, but there are lots of other implications, kisses, and some playful petting that transpires between them. There is no nudity on Lea, but a woman early on in the film is shown asleep nude in bed, the covers down to her waist. (Cheri wakes up with a girl on each side.) There is backside nudity of him on two separate occasions and some partial nudity as well (bare backs, sides, and hips). His scenes with Edmee are less delicate and more explicit, as is a scene with Lea and her new lover (all contain movement). There are references to lovers and affairs, and some discreet discussions about wedding nights and what is expected of the bride. One insult intrudes on the dialogue. A man is cross-dressing in one scene, which also involves an older woman kissing and caressing a much younger man.
I am not certain what my overall impression of this film is. It was interesting and made you empathetic toward the characters, as well as had a lot of good but subtle references to the fact that romantic relationships create a bond between individuals, but the content was at times off-putting and somewhat jaded. Plus the enormous age gap between the leading actors is controversial and at times the "mothering" instinct bleeds through, which raises an entire other set of questions. The presentation is very pretty to look at but the messages are bleak, the outcome has a sadness to it, and the morals leave much to be desired.