Paris, the 1920s. Retired courtesan Léa (Pfeiffer) begins an affair with Chéri (Friend), the son of another courtesan, Madame Peloux (Bates). When Peloux arranges Chéri’s marriage, he and Léa feign indifference about their parting of ways — but their true feelings are another matter.
But this time, Pfeiffer’s character isn’t the wronged innocent. Léa is a middle-aged courtesan who’s made enough money to give her friend’s handsome young son a six-year freebie. And she pays for all his Champagne. Yes, the life of a 1920s Parisian looks pretty good in this drama — Léa even has servants to dress her and run her a bath in her huge Art Nouveau house.
Swishing around her des res, Pfeiffer is elegance personified, and as arresting as she was in Dangerous Liaisons. She also has chemistry with Rupert Friend, who plays her spoiled, selfish lover, Chéri, with ease. Their dalliance is initially entertaining, and serves to expose the amusing contradictions of Chéri’s competitive mother, Madame Peloux (an enjoyable Kathy Bates).
While anxious for her philandering son to be kept in check, Peloux can’t help but feel jealous of his time with Léa — it seems the courtesans’ relationship is more about rivalry than friendship. And so the lovers must be separated by marriage to virginal young Edmee (an underused Felicity Jones).
All this is decorative and occasionally witty, but the characters struggle to engage. Chéri never reveals any depth beyond his hedonistic surface, and while Léa shows vulnerability in a few key scenes, it’s hard to believe the couple are in love. A narration from Frears himself strives to emphasise their bond, but the film fails to demonstrate it, shifting through six years of their lives as if impatient for the conclusion.
As the May-December coupling begins to hit the rocks, interesting issues about relationships, etiquette, age and gender differences are raised. But they’re hardly explored. This keeps the distance of an impartial observer with no affection for its subjects. Wavering between mild-mannered sex-romp and calculated melodrama, Cheri ultimately fails to deliver the one thing period audiences crave most: romance.
This glimpse into a decadent era has its charms, but they’re mostly visual. While Pfeiffer and Friend perform well, the script is tonally confused and lacks edge.
Reviewed by Anna Smith