In Theaters: Cheri
It's not quite the Class of '88 reunion that it sort of strives to be, but Cheri -- the reteaming of Dangerous Liaisons partners Stephen Frears, Christopher Hampton and their extraordinary muse Michelle Pfieffer -- does revive the trio's unique, painstaking sophistication for a grown-up audience in need. And just in time, really, though the film's clashes of wills come almost as fast, fierce and protracted as the sprawling robot battles against which it's counterprogrammed in theaters. At least it's only half as long -- and you won't have to worry about a sequel.
In fact, Cheri comprises both of French novelist Collete's books about the titular, early 20th-century bon vivant, played here by Rupert Friend. Raised in opulent comfort by his mother, the one-time world-class courtesan Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates), Cheri shuffles and strides through his libertine existence until the purposelesness one day catches up with him, and his cadaverous frame slouches onto a couch beside one of Europe's other great whores, Léa de Lonval (Pfeiffer). It's an arranged meeting, of course; the meddlesome Charlotte wants her son off her hands, figuring that if anybody can nudge him into manhood, it's her high-class sex-trade archrival.
She's on to something. Off the makeshift couple goes to Léa's house in Normandy (aim high, Craigslist escorts!), where she breaks the boy -- for six years, as it turns out, between the coast and Paris. Their codependency blooms into a complex variation on love: She sustains her live-in, man-child paramour; he becomes a one-woman guy, even if that woman is more of a mother than he ever had back at the estate. Speaking of whom, she announces that it's time for Cheri to settle into a marriage with a wealthy young woman more in line with his age. The deed is done and devastation wrought, with Cheri and Léa's star-crossed romance wrecked beyond repair. Or is it?
As they did with Liaisons, Frears and Hampton have a ball with their sources' scandalous boudoir politics. Pfeiffer and Friend playfully commence courtship at first blush, while Bates (either misdirected or miscast) chirps and cackles her way through one machination after another. But the implications of age and the futility of passion have caught up with the principals -- none more so than Pfeiffer as Léa, whose decades of professional artifice give way to sincere lovesickness at the dawn of her retirement. It doesn't make her accent any better, alas, but her longing and eventual yowling for Cheri -- who mopes around France with and without his new, beleguered bride -- is a straight shot of solitude that could curdle blood in any dialect.
And anyway, it's the physiques that do so much of the work here. "Beautiful handles, don't you think, for such an old vase?" Léa moans to her servant, her arms framing her reflected face in a mirror. Friend's hollow-cheeked playboy settles into a sanguine, almost feminine beauty after striking away with Léa, and the courtesan's eyes study his brooding features with just the right balance of skepticism, weariness and vulnerability when he returns to her years later.
Frears and cinematographer Darius Khondji gaze back, their candid final shot among the boldest of Pfeiffer's career. She's trying to tell you something; it could be "goodbye" just as easliy as "you're next." Or both, or something else entirely. Whatever it is, you believe it: A truth 20 years in the making, told without words. And painful as it feels, in these artists' hands, it's as worth knowing as ever. RATING: 8