Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
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It’s been a long time since I read Colette’s Chéri (1920) and its sequel The Last of Chéri (1926), though I remembered the basic situation. After a very lucrative career as a courtesan (not a prostitute but a woman kept in expensive style by a man who was usually married to someone else), Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfieffer) has retired. She dallies with the 19-year-old son, Frédric (Rupert Friend) whom she calls “Chéri) of one of her former rivals, Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates, whom it is difficult to believe posed much competition to Pfieffer or was in a ballet corps before embarking on accumulating savings from affluent men). Léa knows that Chéri will be married off at some point to sire grandchildren for Mme. Peloux to dote on. And she knows better than to fall in love, but it seems more difficult to do this with someone she is spending money on than with those who were spending money on her.
After six years, the time comes and Mme. Peloux arranges for her son to wed the convent-educated daughter of another rich old courtesan (Iben Hjejle). Edmee (Felicity Jones) is aware that her husband has been spoiled by his mother and by the retired courtesan Lea and also makes the mistake of falling in love with the man to whom she has been wed. Edmee does not know much about captivating men and keeping them besotted, though she has youth and Léa is keenly aware that she has passed her prime.
The movie Frédric is pretty and no match in guile for Léa, but is more substantial than the one in the book. He loves Léa, though conforming to his mother’s grandchildren-manufacturing master plan.
The 2009 movie has a very heavy-handed voiceover narration (intoned by director Stephen Frears) that tells the story of The Last of Chéri in the last five minutes of the movie. What the viewer sees is primarily the tragedy of the aging woman giving up the young man she adores (Rosenkavalier anyone?)… after showing herself she can get him back. Michelle Pfeiffer is very, very good at embodying the part of a woman finding herself to be “of a certain age.” (50). (I think she has been very good in period movies like this one and “The Age of Innocence.”) Kathy Bates has a lot more fun chewing up the scenery and has outlandish costumes to boot. It is not that easy to feel sorry for the young man who has everything, but Rupert Friend (The Libertine, Mrs. Palfrey at The Claremont, The Young Victoria; he was born in 1981 so was just a bit older than Chéri of the married age in the movie and of the age of the character at the start of Colette’s novel) manages to arouse some sympathy for being a puppy manipulated by women very experienced in manipulating males (his mother, his mistress, his mother-in-law).
The story is more elegiac than the ruthless game-playing in “Dangerous Liaisons,” the very memorable earlier collaboration of writer Christopher Hampton (author of the play and screenplay “Total Eclipse” and of screenplays for “The Quiet American,” “Atonement,” and the current “A Dangerous Method”; writer and director of “Carrington”), director Stephen Frears (The Queen), and Pfieffer. The movie looks sumptuous in its belle époque overstuffed interiors and beautifully lit French exteriors (very Merchant-Ivory in production values as well as in mobilizing a first-rate cast; the cinematographer was Darius Khondji (Se7en, Evita, Midnight in Paris). Alexandre Desplat, who wrote the soundtrack for Frears's "The Queen" (and for "Casanova," "The King's Speech", "Julie and Julia," etc.) provided effective music that does not call attention to itself.
I thought that the movie was very well done, though not reaching as large an audience as “The Queen” or “Dangerous Liaisons” (or “My Beautiful Laundrette”).
The DVD has a 1:47 deleted scene beween Léa and Chéri, a 17-second one between her and her butler and a nine-minute standard making-of featurette in which everyone gushes about everyone else. It is, however, reassuring to see that Pfeiffer does not look as wasted as she does in the movie. Guest sounds more British than in the movie and has lighter-colored hair. And I'd never seen Christopher Hampton before.
©2012, Stephen O. Murray
Viewing Format: DVD
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age