Don’t let the trailer for “Cheri” fool you. While it seduces moviegoers with promises of period costumes and what looks to be a frothy romantic frolic between the beautiful (yet much older) Lea (Michelle Pfeiffer) and the equally beautiful (yet very young) Cheri (Rupert Friend), this film, based on the story by French novelist Colette (who also wrote “Gigi“), will leave you depressed rather than delighted. However, this is not a reason to stay home, either. What I thought would be a rather silly movie turned out to be gripping and stunningly well acted.
The story is simple: Lea is an aging courtesan, and she takes up with the son of another aging courtesan (Kathy Bates), who she has called Cheri (an affectionate nickname) since he was six. Everyone understands the parameters–or so it seems, at first. Mother is happy by the match because her son needs to cheer up, Lea is charmed, and Cheri gets to remain the happy, boyish lover for as long as the relationship lasts–which it’s not supposed to, but does–for six years. It seems that this film’s trailer was made entirely from the initial twenty minutes when Lea and Cheri get together.
Then, we are told, they stay together for six years, to the shock of everyone involved, including them. That’s when their lovers’ bliss comes to an abrupt halt, and the movie takes a turn toward the tragic. Cheri’s mother announces that Cheri is to be wed to a prim, silent 18-year-old girl within the month. Neither Cheri nor Lea want to admit that they care to lose the other, but they do, deeply so, and the loss of their relationship scars them for life.
This story is a morality tale of sorts, but one that champions the illicit, eyebrow-raising love between an experienced courtesan and a boy, and frowns upon marriage. Marriage is the surest way to kill both love and lovers, and true love shows up in the most unexpected places and between couples you’d least expect. The lesson: follow societal convention and court tragedy.
Michelle Pfeiffer is the jewel of this film, as the aging beauty. Her performance is evocative of her role in “Stardust,” where she played an old woman desperate to recapture her youth. While in “Stardust” she was grotesque, in “Cheri” she is full to the brim of emotion. You can’t help but feel for her as she watches the love of her life slip from her fingers, and all she can do is let him go. Pfeiffer’s incredible skill as an actress in this particular role turns what, on the surface, might seem like a simplistic story into something with great depth.